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All About Sperm Whales

It’s a sperm whale of a tale

© Amanda Cotton/Ocean Image Bank

My fascination with sperm whales was first kindled when I saw a skeleton of two whales in the Te Papa Museum in New Zealand. Above me were two magnificent whales larger than the bus I took to school. Their bones alone weighed 6,000 pounds.

Often when we think about these amazing creatures our minds turn to the past, of stories of whalers and Moby Dick. Sperm whales are very much alive today and are a wonder of the ocean. Let’s dive deep into the lives of these incredible cetaceans.

Where can you find sperm whales?

Sperm whales are found in the deep ocean all over the world. Sperm whales wander throughout the ocean, sometimes traveling a million miles in their lifetimes. They range as far as the Arctic and the Antarctic but tend to migrate to the warmer waters of the equator during mating season.

How deep can sperm whales go?

Sperm whales can dive more than 4,000 feet in search of prey. That’s about the height of three Empire State Buildings stacked down below the waves. They can hold their breath and stay submerged for well over an hour. That’s because sperm whales have evolved to access oxygen from their blood and muscles which helps them last for so long without a breath. They also have adaptations that prevent the buildup of dangerous gas bubbles in their bodies, also known as “the bends,” that can endanger humans from the increased pressure in the ocean depths.

Was Moby Dick real?

While Moby Dick is a work of fiction. it did draw inspiration from a real white whale. Mocha Dick was a legendary whale in sailor lore known as the “White Whale of the Pacific”. He allegedly evaded a hundred ships, destroying 20 of them in the process. He was taken down after 28 years of daring escapes, and the account of his death inspired Herman Melville’s tale. While white sperm whales are incredibly uncommon, they are occasionally spotted outside the pages of books. Last year one of these incredible white whales was spotted off the coast of  Jamaica.

How did sperm whales get their name?

Sperm whales get their name from a unique organ in their heads called spermaceti. When seamen first opened a sperm whale’s noggin, they thought the oily substance was, well, semen. The actual purpose of spermaceti still alludes scientists. It could be a help with buoyancy or provide a  way to create powerful sounds that find and stun their prey.

Can sperm whales swallow humans?

While there have been cases where humans end up in a whale’s mouth, generally these human prey get spit out and not swallowed. It’s an extremely rare and unpleasant day for all involved. Technically sperm whales are the only creatures in the ocean with throats large enough to swallow a human. There was one case of a man named James Bartley, labeled as a “modern day Jonah,” who was allegedly swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands in the early 1900s. The story claims that he was rescued from the stomach after whalers took down the animal that ate him. This story doesn’t hold up to close inspection, however, and the science suggests that anyone who had the misfortune of being eaten by a whale would probably not live long. It’s just another one of Pinocchio’s lies.

How many sperm whales are left?

Whaling was a huge threat to sperm whales particularly in the 1800s. Before the whaling industry was created there may have been 1.1 million sperm whales worldwide. Now there are about 300,0000 sperm whales left, and they are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Sperm whales are vulnerable to threats like ship strikes, noise pollution and climate change.

Sperm Whales swim in the waters off Dominica.
© Amanda Cotton/Ocean Image Bank

What is ambergris?

While commercial whaling is long over, people still hunt a particularly valuable sperm whale excretion: ambergris. This substance is produced in a sperm whale’s digestive system, and scientists aren’t exactly sure which end it comes from. While a clump of whale poop or vomit might not sound like something you want to put your hands on, ambergris is known as “floating gold” and can be worth thousands of dollars. It hardens into a very valuable rock that is sought for perfumes, though illegal in the U.S. due to the sperm whale’s endangered status.

Are sperm whales smart?

Sperm whales have the largest brains in the world, over six times larger than our own. This may mean sperm whales develop social connections, culture and bonding associated with mammals with larger and more complex brains. However, we still have lots of questions on what goes on in those big brains of theirs. Since sperm whales are huge, it is hard to run the same intelligence tests that have helped scientists determine the capabilities of dolphins, their cetacean cousins. Observations of sperm whales in the wild throughout history may provide clues as to how smart they really are.

Historical evidence suggests that sperm whales share information about how to avoid whalers and alter their behavior to survive. Sperm whales were able to realize that their usual method of circling an attacker wouldn’t work against the new threat of whaling ships. Instead, they would swim upwind, realizing their hunters needed a favoring wind to chase after them. The result of these new whale strategies was a 58% drop in a whaler’s success in harpooning a whale.

Could we talk to sperm whales someday?

Scientists are currently using recordings of whale sounds and artificial intelligence to try to decode the language of sperm whales. They are ideal candidates because they communicate over long distances, using only sound without the added benefit of body language. Researchers are looking to collect millions of sound clips from whales and use machine learning to map out how they use sound to communicate. The project might help us better understand whales and possibly even communicate with them in the future. Someday the mysteries of sperm whales could be cleared up by talking directly to the source.

Sperm whales are incredible creatures that care for their communities across the vast distances of the ocean. Communication helps whales band together to face new threats. This is why noise pollution is a huge issue because it can drown out these helpful tips and connections that help whales survive as a community. You can take action to help these incredibly smart whales by demanding we turn down the volume in the ocean.

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