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The Toothed Whales - Sperm Whale Copyright Stan Klos

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 Pacific.

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 record.

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 fate.

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


What is should I know about sperm whales?

Where do sperm whales live?

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.  

How many sperm whales are there?

Sperm whales are considered endangered according to the U.S. Endangered Species Act.   Sperm whale populations are difficult to estimate, mostly due their capacity to remain submerged for long periods. 

If you would like to read more about sperm whale stocks, NMML's 1998 Alaska Stock Assessment (in PDF format) discusses the North Pacific stock.  Also, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center's 1996 Stock Assessments are avaible discussing the sperm whale California/Oregon/Washington Stock

How can I identify a sperm whale?

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.

How well can a sperm whale see or hear?

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.

What do sperm whales eat?

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.  

How do sperm whales have their young?

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. 

How long do sperm whales live? How do they die?

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. 

Where can I find more information about sperm whales?

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. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with NMML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recomendations.

In a taxonomic sense, where do sperm whales fit into the picture?
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