Giants: Sperm Whale

(Physeter macrocephalus)

Maximum Length = 60 feet (18 metres)
Maximum Weight = 63 tons (57 tonnes)*

Made famous by Herman Melville's whaling adventure novel, Moby Dick, the Sperm Whale has probably come to represent the archetypal whale to most people.   With its huge, rectangular head and strange, wrinkly skin, the Sperm Whale is easily recognizable, yet it remains one of the least known of all large animals.  It is the largest of the toothed whales and, like them, has a single blowhole, but recent research using molecular genetics has revealed that the Sperm Whale is actually more closely related to baleen whales than it is to other toothed cetaceans.  The Sperm Whale's head contains a huge reservoir of clear oil that may be used to focus and resonate sounds that can be used for communication or to stun prey.  The Sperm Whale is the largest predator our planet has produced and much of its life is spent in pursuit of is chief prey, squids.  The Sperm Whale is also the deep diving champion of the mammalian world, able to dive to 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) and hold its breath for up to 90 minutes.  Adult males usually live at polar to cool temperate latitudes separate from the females and calves, which tend to live in warm temperate and tropical seas.  Sperm Whales were heavily hunted during the heyday of commercial whaling and are also the source of ambergris, a peat-like, waxy substance that forms in the digestive tract in response to irritation (possibly from squid beaks).  Until recently, ambergris was used as a fixative in fine perfumes and was, ounce per ounce, worth more than gold.  The Sperm Whale has also evolved the largest brain ever to exist on our planet, weighing as much as 20 pounds (9 kilograms) but what goes on in its mind or to what uses it puts its enormous brain are mysteries that our own 3-pound (1.4-kilogram) brains have yet to solve..

* 1 ton = 2,000 pounds:  1 tonne  = 1,000 kilograms


ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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