This hiking trip was to the site of the “exploding whale,” one of Oregon’s most prominent stories of local lore.
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based Hiking Club | Date: June 2018 | Duration: 1 day | Participants: 6 | Type: Day Hike
In 1970, near Florence, a 16,000-pound whale carcass the length of a bus washed ashore. After 3-days in the sun, it became so foul smelling that locals wanted it gone. An idea was hatched to dynamite the odorous mass into tiny bits. A local TV report of the incident is classic web viewing. In the clip, a massive boom launches putrid blubber into the sky. As the blast ends, behind the camera, a series of cheers and laughs ring out. One woman’s voice is heard, “All right, Fred, you can take your hand’s our of out of your ears now … here come pieces of … my G-” No one was injured, but viewers were covered in goo and a car was nearly totaled. Our group located the approximate location of the detonation. The day included a pleasant 5-mile beach walk where we viewed a number of shells. We also observed a memorial to 41 sperm whales who mysteriously stranded themselves in the area in 1979. One whale spout was observed just offshore.
I’m an outdoor guide because traveling and nature experiences can be powerful teachers. Here is one such story about how an encounter with a whale helped others (and myself) to grow.
“Whale!” a woman squealed. Two-dozen people slammed themselves onto the starboard railing of a small whale watching the ship. The vessel listed uncomfortably sideways. Just feet away a baby gray whale, the length of a long kayak, floated in the rough surf. Its large black eye seemed to study each of us. Everyone was absorbed in the experience. They had forgotten their discomfort in the previous hour and a half. Up until then, it had been a bad day to be on the water: we had not seen a whale – not one. Our ship sickeningly rolled side to side in the deep troughs, the smell of diesel permeated our nostrils, cold January weather nipped our skin, the sky was oppressively overcast and the wind-chapped our lips. Worst of all was seasickness, not just a queasy feeling, but real illness. I heard my name being simultaneously cursed as participants barfed over the boat’s edge. Some made multiple trips. As they staggered back with a sick yet relieved look on their faces I received several vexing glances. The words were blazed in their eyes, “Why did you make me come out here?”
It was a hard day. My camera had broken too, then again maybe it was for the best. This was the first whale-watching tour that I had organized for a group and it was going horribly. I secretly wanted this trip to be over, to slink home and erase it from my memory. I wanted the trip participants to forget about it, too.
When the young whale appeared the trip was born anew. A marine biologist shared her commentary: the mother was likely on the seabed feeding and would be returning shortly. The juvenile was not lost, just hanging out at the surface.
Amazingly the whale stayed parallel with our ship for about twenty minutes. Then several hundred feet away from a large mass the size of a city bus rose to the surface. She dramatically announced herself by ejecting a plume of air in a geyser-like spray. This was the mother! The smaller whale joined her and they swam off together.
The people were giddy, but also happy to return to port. Upon disembarking from the ship, the trip participants said little, just drove away. I had organized the outing as a way for overscheduled tech workers to connect with their families in the outdoors, but had I inadvertently turned more people off that helped? This was first of several trips where unexpected situations and hardships caused me to question my outings and slowly I became disillusioned. After several summers, I stopped leading nature adventures.
Fast forward to five years. I was at an outdoor market selling child-sized backpacks I made at the time. A man approached and we talked for a minute, then he said, “Hey, you’re that guy who led the whale watching trip.” He briskly shook my hand said, “Thanks.” I wondered if we were talking about the same excursion. He told me about that day, I listened with interest then in dismay as my well-intentioned nature trip was turned into a tale of deceit. At the time, he and his mother-in-law despised one another and for spite, they created ever-increasing hardships for their rival, often to the detriment of family members. One day he saw my whale watching trip and suggested a pleasant outing for the entire family. But his coyness was masked with a desire that his mother-in-law has a miserable experience. In fact, she hated that trip and wanted nothing to do with him again. To his glee, she stopped visiting altogether! Eventually, her lengthy absence spoke to his better nature and he felt guilty for his childish behavior.
Almost a year later she returned for a holiday visit. The conversation at the dinner table was still; everyone in the room knew the two were enemies. As the serving plates started to move about she looked at him and said, “Remember that whale watching trip?” He suspected a trap but replied, “…yes.”
She looked directly at him and with a heartfelt voice said, “Thank You.” His mind was blown. No one in the family knew what to say, him especially.
She shared her story: At the time she suspected the man wanted her to get sick while whale watching, but she went anyway. It was a most unpleasant time. But when she viewed the whale up close and looked into its eye, she saw there was something there – more to the point, something in her. She returned home to southern California and was anxious to the point where sleep was difficult. She spent more time outside and took long walks. She started to walk to the store. Her walks became hikes and she asked her friends to join her, but they were “too busy”, so she went by herself. Later she joined a local hiking club. On these outings, she saw hills and valleys near her house that she had never seen despite having lived in the area for decades. On one hike in the Mojave Desert, she saw a magnificent vista and it inspired her to make a big decision. She decided to visit a place she had always dreamed of seeing since she was a child: South Korea. Then she announced to the family around the table, “I’m leaving for Seoul in three weeks.”
The man was shocked, something in her words had spoken to him. He felt ashamed. After dinner, the two of them had a heart-to-heart talk. The trickery and malice evaporated and they started to heal their relationship. Several weeks later the mother-in-law traveled to Korea and had a wonderful trip. In the months that followed, she visited the family more often and the two of them started to go on short walks. They both enjoyed being outside, even having deep conversations. A year later they had become friends and even hiking buddies. The entire family was happier and everyone was even talking about an overseas trip.
The man finished telling me his tale. Before disappearing into the crowd he said, “Thanks again for the great trip!”
His story was an elixir for me, it helped to renew and strengthen my own passion – connecting people with the outdoors. I started to organize and lead trips once again. Fifteen years later I’m still going strong.
I guide because travel and being in the outdoors teaches things that we can only learn by experiencing life. Guiding is at that nexus, the point between being in the now, learning, and living; and it is best shared with others who seek it.
A great family adventure is to go whale watching. Recently we heard the Blue and Humpback Whales were in large numbers in Monterey Bay off California’s Central Coast. The whales were feasting on the great population of krill, a shrimp-like a creature, that baleen whales love to eat.
Several companies in Monterey offer whale watching trips. We selected “Monterey Bay Whale Watch,” because they were recommended and have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists as guides on all trips. On the day we selected the morning trip was booked but we were able to reserve space for an afternoon 3-hour trip. The price was $36 per adult and $25 for kids – a price well worth the experience.
We boarded the 70-foot (21 meters) Sea Wolf II with about seventy other people. At first, this seemed to be a large number but we later found space not to be an issue. We had brought daypacks stuffed with hats, gloves, and extra jackets. At first, we felt awkward with our plump packs but once we entered the open water the wind became colder and we were glad to have the extra clothes.
The waves ranged between 2 and 4 feet (.6 -1.2 meters) that afternoon and the unpleasant sense of nausea was not felt – any suspicion of it was even forgotten when the whales appeared.
In the distance, we could see small geysers of vapor on the water. The whales were close!
We watched several groups of Humpback Whales before moving on to see the mighty Blue Whales. Blue whales are immense creatures – at 90 feet (27 meters) in length, they are the largest creatures ever on earth. These giants glided in the waves and apparently took no notice of us. At one point you could hear them breathe as they passed by.
Then we moved near a group of Humpback Whales. This group included a mother and calf that came within 40 feet (12 meters) or so of our vessel. The Calf was about 10 to 12 feet (3- 3.6 meters) long, the mom was possibly 45 feet (14 meters) in length. The mom made several dives to feed while the calf stayed near the surface. The calf seemed to enjoy frolicking, splashing and playing. Much of our video includes footage of this Humpback Whale Calf.
All too soon we returned to the harbor. Everyone in our family had a great time and no one had been sick. Even if we had felt sea-sick it would have been a treat to see these amazing animals – especially the Humpback calf who gave us great memories.
January is a prime month to watch Gray Whales as they swim offshore during their annual migration from Alaska to the warm waters off Baja California.
Enjoy a day whale watching and exploring the historic Cannery Row in Monterey. The day begins carpooling from Sanborn Park Hostel to Monterey’s Wharf. In Monterey, we’ll board the 55′ Pt. Sur Clipper and depart for the deep water of Monterey Bay in search of these gentle giants that can reach up to 45 feet in length. The accompanying Marine Biologist will provide onboard interpretation about Gray Whales and other observed sea creatures as seals, otters, and sea birds. In the afternoon return to Monterey for personal exploration of the historic Cannery Row restaurants and shops. In the early evening, we return to the hostel.
Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Date: January 10, 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy
Each year Gray Whales migrate roughly 6000 miles from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Their migration path along the California coast provides excellent viewing opportunities for seeing these magnificent creatures. Join us on March 28 from 9:00 am to noon aboard the 56-foot Salty Lady as we venture 1-12 miles into whale’s migration path. This is an excellent opportunity to photograph these creatures so please come prepared with extra film. After the trip, interested folks can join us for lunch in Half Moon Bay. Reservations for whale watching are required and space is limited to the first twelve individuals. Please send payment of $29.00 (per person) and a self-addressed stamped envelope with a return address to Sanborn Park Hostel for confirmation of your reservation and additional information.
Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Date: Saturday, 28 March 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy