By A. Burnham Shute (Moby-Dick edition - C. H. Simonds Co) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A. Burnham Shute, Public domain, via WikiCommons

Sperm Whale in Literature

Many have read the classic novel, Moby Dick by Herman Melville about the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a “killer” Sperm whale. Melville got his inspiration for this whale’s tale from a real-life horror story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex, captained by George Pollard Jr.  That ship was attacked and sunk by a Sperm whale, estimated to be about 85 feet long,  in 1820.

“Both jaws, like enormous shears, bit the craft completely in twain.”  Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Perhaps, like the Giant Squid, long ago attacks of Sperm whales on ships may account for some of the legendary sea monster tales.

Sperm Whale Biology

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales noted for their extremely large head (40% of its body length) and rows of sharp teeth.  A full-grown male may reach 67 feet in length and weigh 56 tons.  As far as predators of the sea go, this whale ranks as the largest.  It gets its name from the spermaceti oil it produces.  Its flippers are extremely large but it has very small eyes meaning it doesn’t see well.  However, this whale does produce intense clicks for communication and uses this ability perhaps in echolocation to find its prey.  In order to find food, the Sperm whale can dive deeper than any other whale – it can easily reach 3300 feet.  They are bottom feeders eating fish, eels and octopus but their main prey is thought to be the Giant squid.  In fact, many of these whales are found with scars over their heads thought to be from Giant Squid fighting back from the attacking whales.  In order to capture prey they can travel in short bursts of speed up to 25 miles per hour consuming up to a ton of food per day.

Sperm whales can be found world-wide in both tropical and temperate oceans.  Females give birth only once every 4 to 6 years and their pregnancy lasts from at least 12 and possibly as long as 18 months.  They do form pods with a harem system composed of a solitary bull with a school of many females, calves and juveniles. The pod forms strong emotional bonds.  Other pod females will aid those giving birth. Young whales are strongly cared for by females as are the injured and sick members of the pod. Sperm whales have a lifespan similar to humans living up to 80 years.

Sperm whales are an endangered species with only about 200,000 remaining worldwide. Their low reproductive rate makes recovery difficult. Aggressive hunting in the past brought them to the brink of extinction.  Whale numbers have improved because the demand for spermaceti oil has dropped reducing the hunting of these magnificent whales.

“The sperm whales’ network of female-based family unit resembled, to a remarkable extent, the community the whalemen had left back home on Nantucket. In both societies the males were itinerants. In their dedication to killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.”

Nathaniel PhilbrickIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

World Records Held by the Sperm Whale

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