Subject: Re: Sperm Whale reports

Kim Marshall (
Wed, 9 Sep 1998 12:39:27 -0400

>   Question:

 I am always interseted in whales , but I  always wonder about the
tooth whales.  One main question  I have is  about the Sperm
Whale.  Have there ever been attacks on humans from the  Sperm
Whale?     Thanks a bunch,   Lindsay  


Dear Lindsay,

I have never heard of a sperm whale attacking a human but as in any
wild animal, if threatened, they will most likely do whatever they have
to to protect themselves or their calves.

The following is general information about sperm whales:  Enjoy!

<fontfamily><param>Palatino</param><bigger>Sperm whales are the largest
of the toothed whales and most abundant of great whales. - Moby Dick
was a white/albino sperm whale.  A sperm whale adult tooth can be 10"
and weigh 4 lbs!  They are sexually dimorphic, meaning that whales are
larger than the females, reaching 60ft in length, and weighing up to 60
tons. Sperm whales travel in large groups of mostly females, young
males and calves with the older larger bulls joining these groups
briefly for mating. They form circles called margarita formations to
ward off predatorial killer whales and young males attempting to mate. 
When confronted with danger ie: killer whales, sperm whales stop
vocalizing and become silent!!  Remaining silent helps to hide them
from predators. Sometimes they turn belly up to aid their vision as
their vision is restricted by their large heads and when they turn
upside down they can use both eyes together improving depth perception.
 Sperm whales have white mouths which probably play a role in visual
communication between group members.

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>Sperm whales are very
numerous. There are 3000 or so near the Galapagos Island region
permanently made up of females 28-38ft long, young males and calves. 
Most of the group members are genetically related.  The group is
considered a female society where the females cooperatively rearing
calves.  The group bonds for life but the young males leave around 6-7
yrs old and migrate to cooler seas forming bachelor groups.  One of the
male regions is Kaikoura, New Zealand.

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>It was thought that
sperm whales lived in harems.  We now know that there are no harems -
just like elephants -  males, called bulls, rove singly among families
of females spending only an hour or so with each searching for
receptive females.  See only at the most 7 bulls in a season of the
bulls because they roam to the poles.  Males not sexually or socially
mature until approximately 27 years old.  Sperm whales may live to 60
or possibly longer.  Unfortunately many of the larger sperm whale bulls
were killed off during the whaling days. 

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>Why do we call them
Sperm whales - because they have a huge sac in their head called the
spermaceti organ that is filled with a fibrous gel like, substance
called spermaceti. This is the oil which was far superior to any other
oil obtained from blubber rendering via whales. It was used primarily
for lubricating machinery and making smokeless candles.  The need for
this oil was lessoned with the production of

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>A mature male or bull
might have 500 gal of spermaceti oil in their heads. The head can be
1/4 of length and 1/3 of total weight.  Three species of whales have it
- sperm, pygmy sperm, bottlenosed whale. The function is probably used
for buoyancy control whereby as the whale descends into the depths the
oil cools and solididies by the cooler water in the whales nasal
passages.  This makes the whale less bouyant making it easier to dive. 
Then upon accent, by empyting the water from the nasal passages the
spermaceti oil warms and becomes liquifies, becoming lower in density
making it easier to surface.  This oil might also aid in the
transmition and amplification of the clicking and echolocation sounds
used for navigating and foraging and commuicating.

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>Sperm whales also
produce within their intestines, a greasy waxy secretion found around
squid beaks (their main source of food is squid and squid have beaks
like birds) that is known as ambergris.  Found only in sperm whales,
ambergris has a pleasant earthy smell such as when you tear up moss to
expose the soil below, or like a good cigar... to be a whaler and find
ambergris in a sperm whale was as if finding gold because ambergris was
worth more than gold in the 1930's. It's primary usage was as a
fixative in perfumes.   </fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Times</param>

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>How can whales dive so
deep and so long? Sperm whales can dive to depths of two miles which
makes them the undisputed deep diving champions of the mammalian world.
This is due to myoglobin present in their blood, a protein that retains
oxygen more so than hemoglobin. They also control and lower their heart
rate to under 10 beats a min - sending blood to vital organs (brain
etc.).  They expel 98% of air from the lungs where we expel less than
20%,  and they have a flexible rig cage to collapse their lungs on deep
dives.  Whales do not get the bends because nitrogen is not absorbed
into blood.  The gas bubbles are filtered by rete mirabilia (wonderful
network of blood vessels.)  To learn about this incredible adaptation
WCI has developed a camera that attaches to the back of the sperm whale
with suction cups - we are trying to video a whale on a dive to record
feeding, duration of dives, depth, rate of accent and fluke dynamics
using a new tool called

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param>Sperm whales make
vocalizations called codas - these clicks and boinks and in some cases
stunning bangs are picked up by our hydrophones which are directional
and recorded using a digital recorder for frequencies lower than
8000hz.  The range and time between clicks can actually tell us the
approx. size of whale, male or female (males have larger heads and
therefore have longer delays) and give us numbers in population.  Sperm
whales use echolocation sending waves of sound through the water of
various frequencies of clicks, bangs and wheezes.  Feeding almost
wholly on giant squid at great depths it is believed they produce sonic
booms that stun their prey with focused bursts of sound and then gobble
up their prey at leisure in total darkness. The sonic boom from a baby
calf has been reported to have knocked a diver backwards underwater.
Once they narrow the ultrasonic beam they can locate their stunned prey
by varying the frequency.  They have different steady clicks for
foraging, and slower socializing codas like morse code - 23 distinct
codas recognized by Lindy Whitehead at Dalhousie University in New
Brunswick, Canada.  A bull coda sounds like a 2 wine bottles clashing -
very loud - might attract females or intimidate other males.  The noise
is produced by a pair of lips that clap together when air is blown
through with force under blow

</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Palatino</param> A lot of this
information is from a recent article (1996) in National Geographic


<italic><fontfamily><param>Courier</param>Kim Marshall-Tilas           
                       (781) 259-0423

Whale Conservation Institute                          fax: 259-0288

191 Weston Road                      website:

Lincoln, MA  01773

WCI is a member funded and focused organization.  Membership has

its privileges . . .</fontfamily></italic>