Sperm Whales

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SPERM WHALES : The Deep Divers of the Ocean

© Jonathan Bird

A Sperm whale calf investigating the camera!

Join photographer Jonathan Bird on a dive with Sperm whales by watching his on-line adventure series Jonathan Bird's Blue World!


In Herman Melville's classic novel, a Sperm whale called Moby Dick is protrayed as an evil monster which sinks ships and kills sailors. This is the reputation these whales have gotten throughout the years, perhaps because of their large size and huge teeth.

We now know that Sperm whales are not dangerous to people. They do not break ships apart and swallow sailors whole. In fact, we know a lot about what Sperm whales don't do--but not very much else.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on the planet, and perhaps the most abundant of the great whales, but we rarely get to study them because they spend so much time underwater. Sperm whales are deep divers, holding their breath and diving thousands of feet down to feed on deep sea squid and fish. They spend 90% of their lives down deep where they can't be seen. Only rarely do these energetic animals take a break and rest at the surface.

The Sperm Whale's blow hole is at an angle on the left side of its head. This causes its blow to shoot to the left. You can see in this photo how the blowhole looks like a pair of lips, and it works like one too. The whale closes the blowhole when it dives to keep the water out.


Whales might be big, but they aren't easy to find. Sperm whales are even harder to find than other species because they don't stick out of the water very much and their distinctive blow is small and easily missed. Unlike most whales where the spout shoots straight up high into the air, the spout of the Sperm whale is aimed to the left and forward. It doesn't spray up more than six or eight feet, making it hard to spot from a distance.

Down in the depths, where there is no light, Sperm whales hunt using echolocation. The whale produces a series of loud clicks which travel through the water and bounce off objects. The reflected sound bounces back to the whale, which interprets the echo. Using this technique, many kinds of whales and dolphins can "see" in complete darkness. Sperm whales can most likely determine the size, direction and distance of prey, which helps them hunt deep below where there is no light. The only problem with echolocation is that it can also give away the presence of the whale if the prey hears it. Lucky for Sperm whales that giant squid can't hear.

Seeing a Sperm whale on the water can be tough because the spout is not very high.

These products were made from Sperm whales back in the whaling days. Sperm whale oil was considered the finest lubricating oil on Earth.


The Sperm whale gets its name from the spermaceti organ which fills most of its huge head. In the 18th and 19th centuries, New England whalers sought out the Sperm whale for the valuable spermaceti oil, which makes an exceptionally fine lubricant. Nobody is absolutely sure what the spermaceti organ actually does for the whale, but there are two prevalent theories. One suggests that the organ is a buoyancy control device. The waxy oil within the organ has a melting point of between 25-35 degrees C (77-95 degrees Fahrenheit). By controlling blood flow to the organ (and therefore its temperature), the whale might be able to control whether the wax is liquid or solid. If the wax is solid, it contracts and becomes more dense, making the whale sink better. When melted again, the wax expands, making the whale less dense. This technique could be a way of assisting the whale with diving and ascending. The other theory suggests that the organ is used to focus and control the beam of sound that the whale uses for echolocation. For all we know, both theories could be right.

Because of an uncanny ability to efficiently store oxygen in their blood and muscles, adult Sperm whales can stay submerged well over an hour without taking a breath! They have been tracked by sonar diving to depths of 3,900 feet. However, one Sperm whale caught by a whaling ship in water 10,000 feet deep had a bottom-dwelling shark in its stomach, leading researchers to believe that the Sperm whale can dive a lot deeper than seems possible. Just as amazing is how fast they whales may reach that depth. In one study, a Sperm whale descended at an astonishing 550 feet per minute!

The Sperm whale has a mouth full of conical teeth located only in the lower jaw. They fit into sockets in the roof of the mouth. They look pretty mean, but probably aren't all that important in feeding. Most of the items recovered from Sperm whale stomachs are not even chewed, but swallowed whole. An intact 40 foot-long giant squid weighing 440 pounds was recovered from a Sperm whale. Sperm whales with severely mangled jaws have been seen in perfect health, apparently catching food just fine without the complete use of their teeth. This doesn't mean that the squid doesn't fight back. Many Sperm whales have scars from encounters with squid, including big sucker marks on their head and snout. The sucker disks on giant squid contain sharp hooks to dig into prey. They also dig into Sperm whales, leaving life-long scars.

The tooth of a Sperm whale can get even bigger than this. This tooth is about 4 inches long, but a big one can be 8 inches long!


Giant squid, like all squid, have sharp beaks, not unlike those of a parrot. They use them for biting into the fish and invertebrates that they eat. In the stomach of a Sperm whale, those beaks can accumulate. In fact, Sperm whales are often found to have thousands of the beaks in their stomachs! But the sharp beaks irritate the stomach lining. As a reaction to the irritation of all the squid beaks, the whale produces in its intestines a cholesterol derivative which has come to be called ambergris. First discovered in ancient times as a substance of unknown origin which would wash ashore, it wasn't until the whaling era that the true source of the material was found.

When it is first removed from a whale, ambergris is a thick, black, foul-smelling liquid. Later, it hardens into a waxy aromatic substance. When heated, it produces a pleasant earthy aroma. It was used as a fixative in perfumes because it causes the scent of perfume to last much longer. The Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Arabs have all held ambergris in high regard. Today we have synthetic substances which accomplish the same thing, so there is no need to hunt whales for it, and trade in ambergris is now banned worldwide by treaty. Yet, every once in a while a rare piece will still wash ashore somewhere.

During the 1970's, the Save The Whale movement brought the plight of whales to international recognition. Many people now believe that whales are "saved." This couldn't be further from the truth. All around the world, whaling still exists. Many countries continue to hunt whales, in spite of international treaties to protect them. In New England, Hawaii, Alaska and many other places where whales are common, the whale watching industry has proven to make far better financial sense than whale hunting. Once a whale is killed, it is gone. But watching whales preserves not only the whales themselves, but the industry and the income.

The Sperm whale probably has one of the most stable populations of any whale on Earth, possibly more than a million. This means that the Sperm whale is the only great whale species which is not endangered. I would encourage anyone even remotely interested in whales to go on a whale watch and see a whale up close. There is nothing like the experience of seeing a whale--any whale--in the flesh. The more people who see whales up close, the better chance we will have to protect the precious few whales we have left.

A Sperm whale playing at the surface of the Caribbean.


Join photographer Jonathan Bird on a dive with Sperm whales by watching his on-line adventure series Jonathan Bird's Blue World!


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update 6/5/07