Sperm Whale

Physeter macrocephalus

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The Sperm Whale is the largest toothed whale on Earth and perhaps one of the most recognizable. The animal was made legendary as the almost supernatural antagonist of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. The novel also documented an important time in the whale’s natural history – the height of the whale-hunting industry in the United States and Europe when many of the ocean’s cetaceans were driven to the brink of extinction. The chief commodity of whaling was the animal’s blubber (fat) which was used in the production of oil, candles, cosmetics and soap. Whaling continued to be big industry up until sixty years ago when many of the products obtained from whales either fell out of fashion or could be created synthetically.

The Sperm Whale can be identified by its large, blunted head and small lower jaw. The inside of the mouth is lined with a single line of cone-shaped teeth. These teeth can weigh up to two pounds (0.9 kg) each. It is not clear whether the teeth are used for capturing food or in mating rituals. The skin of the whale is usually a gray-brown color and becomes increasingly wrinkled after the head and down the length of the body. These whales can grow to mammoth sizes. The largest was claimed to be 85 feet long (26 meters). (This same animal was said to have destroyed the whaling vessel, Essex, in 1820. This real-life incident inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.)

The animal’s size enables it to make very deep, prolonged dives. Sperm Whales can remain submerged for up to fifty minutes as they hunt deep-water squid. Although swimming through lightless areas, sophisticated echolocation allows them to track prey in a manner similar to sonar detecting underwater objects.

Range and Habitat

Sperm Whales can be found in every major ocean on Earth at a variety of latitudes. They normally travel in extended family groups called “pods.” These pods consist mostly of females and calves, with adult males often attending to several groups simultaneously. They are common to Oregon waters throughout most of the year except when they migrate south between December and February.

Conservation Status

Endangered. Sperm Whales were hunted worldwide during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century; and again during the mid-twentieth century. The effect on their population was devastating. Before the hunts, over a million Sperm Whales cruised the oceans. Their numbers are now estimated at 360,000 worldwide. They are currently protected by United States law and international agreement, but rogue whaling nations continue to kill these animals in yearly hunts. Marine debris and discarded fishing nets also present a real danger to the species and account for some mortality.

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