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The well-known gigantic sperm-whale is the typical representative of a family
characterized by the total absence of any functional teeth in the upper jaw;
those of the lower jaw being either numerous or reduced to a single pair. These
characters are sufficient to distinguish the members of this family from those
of the two others now existing, but it may be added that the skull is much
elevated in the hinder region, so as to form a high prominence or crest behind
the aperture of the nostrils.
The members of this family include the largest of the toothed Cetaceans, and the
whole of them are exclusively oceanic in their habits; their food consisting
mainly or solely of squids and cuttles.
The sperm-whale, or, as it is frequently called from its French title, cachalot
(Physeter macrocepkalus), is one of the largest of the Cetaceans, fully
rivalling in size the Greenland whale. As with many other species, its
dimensions have, however, been considerably exaggerated; although, on the other
hand, it is quite probable that when the species was more abundant than at
present, some individuals attained a size which is now never reached. Be this as
it may, the male sperm-whale is definitely known to attain a length of from 55
to 60 feet; but females are said not to reach much more than half these
dimensions, while their form is proportionately more slender. The essential
generic characteristics of the sperm-whale are to be found in the great
proportionate size of the head, which equals about one-fourth of the total
length of the animal, and in the number of the teeth being from twenty to
twenty-five on each side of the lower jaw.
In appearance the sperm-whale is ungainly and ugly in the extreme, this being
chiefly due to the great height and abrupt truncation of the enormous muzzle,
upon the summit of which is situated the S-shaped aperture of the nostrils,
somewhat to the left of the middle line. The mouth, which is of great length and
capacity, opens below, and at some distance behind the extremity of the muzzle.
On the upper surface of the skull, as seen in our figure of the skeleton, is a
huge cavity, bounded behind by a tall vertical wall of bone; this cavity being
filled in the living animal with the substance known as spermaceti, of which
more anon. In front of this hollow protrudes the long rostrum of the upper jaw;
the gum of which contains rudimentary teeth. The lower jaw is very long and
slender; its two branches being united in the middle line for about half their
total length. The teeth are implanted in the lower jaw in a long groove,
partially divided into sockets by incomplete bony partitions. These teeth are of
large size, and, when unworn, are pointed and recurved at their tips. They are
composed solely of ivory, and the pulp-cavity at their base remains open for a
long period, although generally more or less completely closed in adult life,
when the whole base of the tooth becomes much flattened from side to side. The
tongue and interior of the mouth are of a glistening white color; and the
diameter of the throat is very large. The eye is placed somewhat above the angle
of the mouth, and a short distance behind it is the minute aperture of the ear,
which is said not to exceed a quarter of an inch in diameter.
At the junction of the head with the body there is a distinct prominence in the
middle line of the back; while half-way between this and the tail, is a larger
projection, followed by a number of smaller ones, and technically known as the "
hump." There is no back-fin. The flippers are placed a little behind and below
the eyes, and seldom exceed 6 feet in length by 3 in width; while the maximum
diameter of the flukes is about 15 feet. In color the sperm-whale is generally
either black or blackish brown on the upper-parts, becoming rather lighter on
the sides and under surface, and passing into silvery grey on the chest.
Occasionally, however, piebald individuals are met with ; and old males
frequently become grey in the region of the muzzle and crown of the head.
The sperm-whale is essentially an inhabitant of the open seas, the individuals
that appear on the British coasts being either stragglers or such as have been
carried after death by the Gulf Stream. The range of the species extends over
all the warmer oceans, but does not include the polar seas; and that the
sperm-whale is in the habit of traveling immense distances is proved by the
circumstance that specimens have been killed in the Atlantic bearing in their
bodies spears that had been fixed there during a sojourn in £he Pacific.
Formerly, this whale was much hunted in the Bay of Bengal and around Ceylon; but
it is now comparatively rare in these regions, while its numbers have been
greatly diminished by constant persecution in its favourite haunts in the South
Captain Scammon states that a very large sperm-whale, captured off the Galapagos
Islands in 1853, yielded eighty-five barrels of oil. This quantity was, however,
exceeded by one caught in the year 1817 in the same region by the ship Adam,,
belonging to a great-uncle of the present writer; the yield in that case being
one hundred barrels. A tooth taken from this whale is stated by Sir R. Owen, to
have measured 9£ inches in length, and 9 in girth, with a weight of 3 Ibs.; and
there is another nearly equally large tooth in the British Museum which formerly
belonged to the writer, and not improbably came from the same whale. As no
sperm-whales killed at the present day have teeth of these dimensions, it seems
not improbable that the old statements as to specimens of 80 feet in length, may
not have been so far from the truth; and it is possible that the one killed by
the crew of the Adam, may have been the largest individual of which there is any
Sperm-whales are gregarious animals, and assemble in " schools," which in former
days might comprise from fifteen to twenty to several hundred individuals.
Although for a part of the year some of the largest and oldest males live by
themselves, the " schools" generally comprise individuals of both sexes and all
ages, and are led by two or three old males. The females display much solicitude
for the safety of one another and likewise for that of their offspring; and when
one female out of a party is killed, it is generally easy to capture several
others. The young males, which are found associated together in herds at certain
times of the year, are however, according to Captain Scammon, far less
chivalrous in disposition, and will at once leave a wounded companion to its
The sperm-whale, as recorded by Beale in 1838, is distinguished from all other
Cetaceans by the regularity with which it comes to the surface to breathe,
although there is some variation in this respect according to age. " When
emerging to the surface," writes Captain Scammon, " the first portion of the
animal seen is the region of the hump, then it raises its head and respires
slowly for the space of about three seconds, sending forth diagonally a volume
of whitish vapour, like an escape of steam; this may be seen from the
masthead at a distance of three to five miles. In respiring at its leisure, the
animal sometimes makes no headway through the water; at other times it moves
quietly along at the rate of two or three miles an hour, or, ' if making a
passage' from one feeding-ground to another, it may accelerate its velocity.
When in progressive motion, hardly an instant is required for inspiration; when
the animal dips its head a little and momentarily disappears, then it rises
again to blow as before, each respiration being made, with great regularity. The
number of its spoutings, when in a state of quietude, depends on the size of the
animal. The same may be said as to the time it remains upon or beneath the
surface of the ocean. With the largest bulls the time occupied in performing one
expiration and one inspiration is from ten to twelve seconds, and the animal
will generally blow from sixty to seventy-five times at a rising, remaining upon
the surface of the sea about twelve minutes. As soon as ' his spoutings are out'
he pitches head-foremost downward, then,' rounding out,' turns his flukes high
in the air, and, when gaining a nearly perpendicular altitude, descends to a
great depth, and there remains from fifty minutes to an hour and a quarter."
During the spouting there is no sound heard. When swimming in the ordinary
manner, with the hump just showing above the surface, Beale believes that
sperm-whale can attain a speed of about seven miles an hour, but when swimming
with the head alternately in and out of the water he estimates the speed at from
ten to twelve miles in the hour.
When at the surface, sperm-whales frequently indulge in what appear to be mere
sportive gambols. At one time they will violently beat the water into foam with
their flukes, this action being known to whalers as " lob-tailing," while at
others they will leap completely out of the water. Beale states that the way in
which the sperm-whale performs this action of " breaching" " appears to be by
descending to a certain depth below the surface, and then making some powerful
strokes with his tail, which are frequently and rapidly repeated, and thus
convey a certain degree of velocity to his body before it reaches the surface,
when he darts completely out. When just emerged and at its greatest elevation,
his body forms with the surface of the water an angle of about forty-five
degrees, the flukes lying parallel with the surface; in falling, the animal
rolls his body slightly, so that he always falls on his side. He seldom '
breaches' more than twice or thrice at a time or in quick succession." It is
added that the " breaching " of a sperm-whale is discernible at a distance of
six miles from the masthead on a clear day. It is believed by some authorities
that these actions of the sperm-whale are not gambols, but are undertaken to rid
its body of certain parasites. If frightened, the animal can sink suddenly to
the bottom, even when lying horizontally.
The female cachalot, according to Beale, breeds at all seasons of the year, and
there is generally but a single young one produced at a birth, although twins
are not unknown. At birth the length of the young sperm-whale is said to vary
from 11 to 14 feet
The chief food of the sperm-whale consists of squids and cuttles, but
considerable quantities of fish—comprising rock-cod, albicore, and bonito—are
likewise consumed. All these different kinds of food are procured at a
considerable depth below the surface of the water, but the mode of capture is at
present unknown. It has indeed been suggested that, when below the surface, the
whale remains stationary and drops its lower jaw nearly perpendicularly, thus
revealing the glistening white interior of the capacious mouth. This, it is
alleged, serves to attract the various animals upon which the creature feeds,
and when a sufficient number have entered the trap, the lower jaw is suddenly
closed. Although the suggestion is ingenious, it is one that scarcely admits
either of proof or disproof.
Products and The sperm-oil yielded by the thick layer of blubber investing the
Hunting. body, and the spermaceti contained in the cavity of the head, are the
two products for which the sperm-whale is hunted; and since the former fetches a
far higher price than ordinary whale-oil, this animal is one of the most
valuable of all the Cetaceans. The spermaceti exists in the form of oil in the
living animal, and is ladled out in buckets from the skull when the carcass is
cut up. The spermaceti of commerce is produced by a process of refining. The use
of this enormous mass of oil in the skull does not appear to be ascertained.
In addition to sperm-oil and spermaceti, the substance known as ambergris is
also a product of the sperm-whale. It is not, however, usually taken from the
animal, but is found floating in the sea, and has been ascertained to be formed
in the intestines. This substance always contains a number of the beaks of the
squids and cuttles upon which the whale has fed. Although formerly employed in
medicine, it is now used exclusively in perfumery.
In the old days of sperm-whale-hunting (of which alone we shall speak) the
vessels engaged in the trade were from three hundred to four hundred tons
burden, and were equipped for a three years' voyage; their usual destination
being the South Seas. They each had a crew of from twenty-eight to thirty-three
officers and men, and carried six whale-boats. These boats were about
twenty-seven feet in length, with a beam of four feet, and were built sharp at
both ends. Four boats took part in the chase, each being furnished with a pair
of two hundred fathom harpoon-lines, and carrying a crew of six men. The crew
comprised a boat-steerer in the bow, four hands, and the headsman in the stern.
It was the business of the boat-steerer to harpoon the whale, and when this was
accomplished he changed places with the headsman, whose duty it was to kill the
animal with the lances. When a whale was harpooned, immediately after its first
struggles, and when it was lying exhausted from its endeavors to escape, the
boat was pulled close alongside, and the headsman began the work of destruction
by thrusting his lance into the vital parts behind the flipper. As soon as the
whale was lanced, the boat was backed with all possible speed. When first struck
the whale frequently "sounded," or descended to immense depths, sometimes taking
out nearly the whole of the eight hundred fathoms of line earned by the four
boats. Subsequently, however, when weakened by loss of blood, it kept on or near
the surface, towing after it one or more of the boats. By hauling in the line,
the boat or boats were once more pulled up alongside, and the monster finally
destroyed either by darting or thrusting the lancea
Whaling, as thus carried out, was full of danger, and there are hundreds of
accounts of hairbreadth escapes from death, and of feats of daring. In the
southern seas Maories were not infrequently shipped by British whalers as
harpooners, and the following narrative of the daring of one of these men is
related by Dr. A. S. Thomson in his History of New Zealand. " One morning,"
writes the narrator, " a lone whale was seen on the placid Pacific; the boat was
pulled up to it, and the New Zealander, balancing himself on the gunwale, darted
the harpoon at the creature and missed. After several hours' chase, under a
tropical sun, the whale was approached a second time, and the New Zealander
darted two harpoons at him, but again missed. Then the bitterest disappointment
arose among the tired boat's crew, which they expressed in curses deep and loud.
These taunts maddened the Maori; and no sooner was the boat again pulled up to
the whale than he bounded on the animal's back, and for one dizzy second was
seen there. The next, all was foam and fury, and both were out of sight. The men
in the boat shoved off, flung over a line as fast as they could, while ahead
nothing was seen but a red whirlpool of blood and brine. Presently a dark object
swam out, the line began to straighten, then smoke round the loggerhead, and the
boat sped like an arrow through the water. They were fast, and the whale was
running. But where was the New Zealander ? His brown head was on the boat's
gunwale, and he was hauled aboard in the very inidst of the mad bubbles that
burst under the bows."
When harpooned or lanced, females and young males generally make the most
frantic efforts to escape; and being very active in their motions, give the most
trouble to dispatch. The larger whales, yielding eighty or more barrels of oil,
being less active animals, are in most cases killed more easily. This is
however, by no means always so; and there are many instances on record where
large sperm-whales have turned with the utmost fury upon their pursuers, and
destroyed every object that came in their way, either by blows from the enormous
flukes, or by attacking with the head and lower jaw. There are, moreover, well
authenticated instances, not only of sperm-whales demolishing the boats of a
whaling-ship, but actually attacking and sinking the vessel itself; and Captain
Scammon thinks it probable that many ships which have perished without leaving
any clue as to their fate, have been wrecked by these whales. In 1820 the Essex
was destroyed in the South Pacific by an infuriated cachalot, which made two
deliberate charges at the vessel, the first of which produced a considerable
leak, while the second stove in the bows. Again, in 1851, the Ann Alexander was
sunk in a similar manner off the Peruvian coast. Whether the ship Union, which
was wrecked in 1807 by striking a sperm-whale in the night, was actually
attacked by the animal, or whether this was a case of accidental collision, can
never be ascertained. As an instance of the ferocity of these whales, it may be
mentioned that in 1851, when the ship Citizen was whaling in the Atlantic, a
wounded cachalot, after attacking and demolishing one boat, made for a second,
from which it was only diverted by its attention being transferred to a third.
This third boat only escaped with difficulty, and the whale thereupon headed
straight for the vessel itself, which was then approaching under full sail. By
putting the head before the wind, the rush of the whale was, however, avoided;
and before the animal could gather itself for a second charge, it was seized
with its death-throes and expired. In another case a sperm-whale, not content
with having smashed a whale-boat, actually seized the timbers in its jaws and
chewed them into match-wood. Extinct Sperm-whales, belonging mostly to extinct
genera, were abundant
Sperm whales date back to the Pliocene period, their remains occurring in
the crag deposits of England and Belgium, and likewise in Australia. Some of
these forms (Eucetus) were of large size, and appear to have been allied to the
living species; but others (Scaldicetus) were distinguished by having the
summits of the teeth surmounted with a cap of grooved enamel. A third type is
considered to be closely allied to the whale described below. -
The Royal Natural History: Mammals, birds By Richard Lydekker - 1895 Edited by
Stanley L. Klos 1999
Sperm whales are divided into Northern and
Southern hemisphere populations, and can be found in all oceans. Males
range from equator to polar regions, while females and juveniles migrate
north too although they usually spend more time in temperate regions.
Male sperm whales grow to about 60 feet (18.3
meters) while female sperm whales grow to approximately 43 feet (13.1
meters) long. Male and female sperm whales have huge, squarish foreheads,
small inconspicuous eyes, and a long narrow lower jaw. Sperm whales have
one blowhole located at the left of the forehead. Their blows are
projected forward at an angle, which is very different from other whales.
Their light-brown to blue-gray skin is rippled over much of the body,
especially on the back and sides.
Sperm whales have disproportionately small
eyes so it is thought that they do not see particularly well. In fact,
blind sperm whales have been captured in perfect health with food in their
stomachs. Instead of sight, sperm whales are thought to use echolocation to
seek their prey and navigate the topography of their environment. Sperm
whale hearing abilities are not well known.
Sperm whales are among the deepest marine
mammal divers. Males have been known to dive 3,936 feet (1199.7 meters)
while females dive to at least 3,280 feet (999.7 meters). Sperm whales can
dive for over an hour. Giant squid comprise about 80% of the sperm whale
diet and the remaining 20% is comprised of octopus, fish, shrimp, crab and
even small bottom-living sharks. Sometimes getting a meal isn't easy for
sperm whales as evidenced by disk-shaped scars and wounds likely made by
giant squid resisting capture.
Sperm whale herds appear to be organized on a
"harem" system similar to elephants where a solitary bull (male) sperm whale
joins a school of 10-40 adult females plus their calves, and juveniles (of
both sexes) for the length of a breeding season. Males sometimes fight to
gain control of harems by biting and butting of other males. Females will
sometimes assist this process by driving away older males.
Breeding seasons occur in the middle of summer
according to hemisphere and 12-13 foot calves are born after a 14-16 month
gestation period. Females nurse their calves for two years and longer
suggesting that nursing is both a social and a feeding function for sperm
whales. Females are able to conceive at about 28 feet (8.5 meters) long,
while male sperm whales are probably not able to mate until they are 39 feet
(11.9 meters) long.
Sperm whales may live to be 50-70 years of
age. Sperm whales die of natural causes, have been known to mass
strand, and were the focus of a commercial hunt in the 18th and 19th
centuries. They were sought for their special spermaceti oil (which even
today is used as a high grade lubricant), their blubber which makes an
excellent oil, and their meat (which apparently tastes better than
chicken!). The famous literary classic, Moby Dick tells the story of
a 19th century whale hunt.
Books and the world wide web are excellent
places to learn more about marine mammals.
Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R.
Foster, Larry. The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.
Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA. 1983.
Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R.
Perrin, William F. Evans, William E. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises
of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their
Identification. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY. 1988.
Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to
Marine Mammals of Alaska. Alaska Sea Grant Program. University of
Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK. 1992.
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