Did Exploding Whales Just Go Mainstream?

There was a short science lesson in this weekend's SNL, but if you blinked you might have missed it. Also a pair of methane-filled marine mammals sent their bloody viscera flying onto Taran Killam and Charlize Theron.

In case you haven't heard, the internet spent some time wondering whether a decomposing blue whale that had washed up on a Newfoundland Beach would explode. It didn't. Still, the speculation allowed science writer Dr. Andrew Thaler the opportunity to explore just what is so compelling about the notion of an exploding whale.

What is it about exploding whales that captures our collective imagination so thoroughly? It can't just be the rarity or ridiculousness of the situation. The internet is bursting with rare, wonderful, ridiculous moments than languish in obscurity. Is it the potential for metaphor? Everything from Toronto mayor Rob Ford's career to misogyny within the tech community have been compared to the dead, bloating blue whale carcass waiting to burst. Exploding whale jokes write themselves.

Perhaps exploding whales force us to confront something profound about ourselves. For all our accomplishments, all of our technological prowess, when a corpse of the largest animal that ever lived washes ashore, we are nearly helpless to move it. As far as we've come since the morning we climbed down from the trees, these dead, rotting carcasses taunt us, mocking all that we have achieved.

We can view these events as isolated incidents of online enthusiasm or as benchmarks for the profound transformations that have occurred over the last 20 years. From the early days of Usenet, where videos were shared not through the wires, but through physical infrastructure, to today, where were eagerly await news of the latest (possible deflated) whale explosion. The history of exploding whales is the history of the internet itself.


Perhaps its the idea that so massive a beast could be rendered so completely unrecognizable, torn to shreds by its own decomposition. I think exploding whales hint at life's transient, temporary nature, while they simultaneously remind us that we will never rise to the explosive magnificence of our marine mammal cousins. Humans may sometimes shuffle off that mortal coil in surprising ways, but never with the sort of spectacle as an exploding whale.

Do you remember your first exploding whale?

Read the rest of Andrew Thaler's very excellent article: The History of Exploding Whales is the History of the Internet Itself.