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Where to see Sperm Whales

sperm whale
A mother sperm whale and her calf off the coast of Mauritius. The calf has remoras attached to its body. Gabriel Barathieu, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sperm Whales are some of the largest animals in the oceans. If you have ever wondered ‘Where to see Sperm Whales?’, then you are at the right place!

Easily identified for their striking large block-shaped forehead, sperm whales are truly one of the most majestic creatures in the sea. Highly sought after in the mid-1800s for the whales blubber the sperm whale has become one of the most endangered whale species in the world.

Key points

TopicKey Points
Behaviour– Sperm whales have large conical teeth, large brains, and powerful sonar for hunting
– They can dive to incredible depths and stay submerged for up to two hours
Characteristics– Sperm whales have a distinctive block-shaped head and a uniformly grey body
– Males reach sexual maturity at around 18 years old, females at 9 years old
– Females give birth to a single calf after a 15-month pregnancy
Pods and Family– Sperm whales are often seen in groups called pods
– Females and calves remain in tropical waters while males migrate to higher latitudes for breeding
Commercial– Sperm whales were heavily hunted during the commercial whaling era
Whaling– Whaling significantly reduced their population numbers
– Sperm whales are still considered vulnerable to extinction due to various threats
Hunting Tactics– Sperm whales eat a large amount of food, including giant squid
– They dive to depths of 300 to 1,200 meters (990 to 4,000 feet) using echolocation to locate prey
9 Fun Facts– Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales and can grow up to 52 feet long
– They have one of the widest distributions of all marine mammals
– Sperm whales can dive more than 10,000 feet in search of prey
Where to See– Sperm whales can be found in all oceans, but not in the North Sea due to its shallow waters
Sperm Whales– Whale watching tours offer the chance to see sperm whales, although sightings are not guaranteed
Stranding’s– Sperm whales occasionally strand themselves on coastlines
– Stranding can occur due to various factors, including disruptions in the Earth’s magnetic field and confusion caused by sandbanks
– Some strandings can be rescued with the help of humans and returned to the water

Introduction

sperm whale
A sperm whale underwater in the ocean. Image via Depositphotos

The common name of the sperm whale can be traced back to the heyday of the commercial whaling industry, which thrived from the late 18th century through the 19th century. It’s no surprise that the infamous whale Moby Dick was, indeed, a sperm whale.

The unique feature that contributed to this name is found in the head of the sperm whale, which houses a massive fluid-filled organ. In those whaling days, this organ was referred to as the “case.” During the process of harvesting whales, whalers discovered a white liquid within this organ, which they initially mistook for the sperm of the whale. This misunderstanding led to the common name “sperm whale.”

Remarkably, the spermaceti organ is exclusive to sperm whales, although bottlenose whales possess a similar structure. This organ can hold a volume as large as 2,000 liters (530 gallons) and extends through approximately 40 percent of the whale’s total length. The substance it contains was highly valued for its wax-like properties, but fortunately for the sperm whale, the whaling industry dwindled when kerosene, petroleum, and other fossil fuels gained popularity as more efficient and reliable alternatives to whale oil.

Where to See Sperm Whales

whale tail
Sperm whale tail. Image via Pixabay

Sperm whales, with a global population ranging from 500,000 to 2 million, are widespread across all oceans. While they favor deeper waters, the shallow North Sea isn’t their preferred habitat. During the winter, these magnificent creatures migrate from northern regions to southern destinations, including the eastern Atlantic Ocean, occasionally venturing into the North Sea.

However, the North Sea’s shallowness poses a challenge for sperm whales, often leading to them becoming stranded along the coast. In the winter of 2016, at least fifteen sperm whales met this fate in the North Sea.

If you’re eager to witness these majestic whales firsthand, consider reaching out to reputable operators who specialize in whale watching. It’s important to note that whale sightings can be elusive, and no tour provider can guarantee a sighting. Yet, with a bit of luck, the right season, and the ideal location, you might just have the opportunity to marvel at these extraordinary creatures in their natural habitat.

Behavior

YouTube video
Sperm whales clicking, YouTube, Long Now Foundation

Sperm whales possess several remarkable physical adaptations that aid in their predatory pursuits. Despite being formidable predators, they are not inherently aggressive toward humans, and there are even accounts of friendly interactions between these whales and people. However, their specialized features are tailored for hunting.

One such adaptation is their large conical teeth, which they use to ensnare their preferred prey. Additionally, like most active predators, sperm whales boast impressively large brains. In fact, they claim the title of the largest brain of any animal on Earth. This substantial brainpower complements their sophisticated echolocation abilities, which are the most powerful sonar capabilities of any creature. They rely on this sonar to locate their prey in the dark depths of the ocean.

Furthermore, sperm whales possess the extraordinary capability to dive to astonishing depths, reaching up to 1000 meters, and remain submerged for extended periods, sometimes up to two hours. These abilities significantly enhance their chances of locating and capturing prey.

Due to their deep-sea behaviors, sperm whales typically inhabit waters several thousand meters deep and are rarely spotted along the coast, except in regions where deep trenches or underwater canyons approach the shore.

Characteristics

whale tail
Whale tail. Image via Depositphotos.
CharacteristicDescription
SizeLargest toothed whale, males up to 52 feet (16 m) in length
WeightAdults weigh around 35 to 45 tons
LifespanAverage of 70 years
FeedingPredatory, primarily feeds on squid and fish
Spermaceti OrganUnique organ in the head containing a waxy substance called spermaceti
Diving AbilitiesDeep-diving champion, known to dive to great depths in search of prey
Social StructureLives in social groups called pods, typically led by females
Conservation StatusVulnerable

The sperm whale’s very large brain and specialized sonar organ (called a melon) contribute to its characteristic block-shaped head. 

It is the only whale that has that shaped head and is typically quite easy to identify. The body is generally uniformly grey. And the sperm whale’s lifecycle is very similar to that of humans.

Sperm whales have unique reproductive patterns. Male sperm whales reach sexual maturity at around 18 years old, while females achieve this milestone at just 9 years old. Unlike some other animals, male sperm whales don’t form harems of females. Instead, they engage in battles for mating rights and then mate with multiple females. Female sperm whales continue to reproduce until they reach their forties and can live well into their seventies.

The pregnancy term for a sperm whale lasts approximately 15 months, resulting in the birth of a single calf. Remarkably, baby sperm whales are quite large, measuring over 13 feet (4 meters) in length at birth.

The birth of a sperm whale calf is a significant social event within the pod. The rest of the sperm whale group forms a protective barrier around the birthing mother and her newborn calf. Since the calves are unable to undertake the deep and lengthy dives that their mothers do, groups of mothers form close-knit bonds and share the responsibility of keeping the calves safe at the surface. While one or more mothers dive, the others remain at the surface, ensuring the well-being of the young.

Pods and Family

sperm whale
Sperm whale in ocean. Image by imbault via Pixabay

Sperm whales are frequently observed in pods consisting of approximately 15 to 20 individuals. These pods encompass both females and their young, while males may roam independently or move between different groups. While whales are inherently social creatures, you can delve deeper into the world of the most sociable marine animal in another one of our articles.

Females and their calves tend to remain in tropical or subtropical waters throughout the year, where they appear to engage in communal childcare. In contrast, males undertake migrations to higher latitudes, either alone or in groups, before returning to equatorial regions for breeding. Powered by their impressive tail fluke, which spans approximately 16 feet from tip to tip, they can cruise through the oceans at speeds of around 23 miles per hour.

These iconic leviathans are known for their vocalizations, emitting a series of “clangs” that serve various purposes, such as communication or echolocation. Echolocation is a remarkable ability used by certain animals that involves emitting sounds underwater. These sounds travel until they encounter objects and then bounce back to the sender, providing valuable information about the location, size, and shape of their target.

Commercial Whaling

whale tooth
Sperm whale tooth. Image via Depositphotos

Commercial Whaling has been a sever problem for many kinds of whales around the world. However, in the Sperm Whales case, they were highly caught after and unfortunately after 150 years of commercial whaling for sperm whales their population numbers were sadly cut at least in half, and some scientists estimate that whaling reduced the population by 75% or more. 

During a time when whale oil was a primary energy/lighting source in the U.S. and Europe, sperm whale oil was some of the highest quality and highest volume per whale of any species. 

Though whaling has all but ceased since 1988, sperm whales have not yet fully recovered from this cruel practice and are still considered vulnerable to extinction by expert scientists.

They have, however, recovered more significantly than the other large whales and are the classed as the most common large whale in the ocean today. 

It is very difficult to obtain accurate numbers of sperm whales in the wild, so it is equally difficult to determine if populations are increasing or decreasing, but today’s primary threats include accidental entanglement in fishing gear, chemical pollution, and noise pollution. Several countries around the world have offered these whales some or extensive legal protection.

Sperm whales hunting tactics

sperm whales
Sperm whales swimming in ocean, Mauritius. Image via Depositphotos

Sperm whales are voracious eaters, consuming a staggering 900 kg (almost 2,000 pounds) of food each day. To locate their preferred prey, which includes giant squid, they embark on dives ranging from 300 to 1,200 meters (990 to 4,000 feet), although they can plunge as deep as 2 km (1.2 miles) when on the hunt. These dives typically last about an hour.

Sperm whales employ a remarkable echolocation system to pinpoint their prey. They emit a series of clicks that rank as the loudest animal-produced sounds in the world, helping them focus on their quarry.

These whales possess impressive teeth along their lower jaw, measuring approximately 18 to 20 cm long (7.1 to 7.9 inches). These teeth fit into sockets along the underside of the palate. Interestingly, the upper teeth of a sperm whale never protrude from its upper jaw.

Scientists believe that sperm whales and giant squid are natural adversaries. While no direct battles have been observed, sperm whales occasionally bear circular scars, which are thought to result from interactions with the suckers of giant squid.

When hunting smaller fish, pods of sperm whales collaborate to corral their prey into dense, ball-like clusters, making them easier to capture and consume than individual fish.

9 Fun Facts About Sperm Whales

sperm whale
Sperm Whales. Image by vitaliy_sokol via Depsoitphotos

1. Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales and can grow to a maximum length of 52 feet (15.8 m) and weight of 90,000 pounds (40 metric tons), with males typically growing much larger than females.

2. Sperm whales live for up to 60 years.

3. Sperm whales have one of the widest distributions of all marine mammals, living everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

4. These whales are named after the spermaceti – a waxy substance that was used in oil lamps and candles – found in their heads.

5. These whales are known for their large heads that account for one-third of their body length.

6. Sperm whales can stay underwater for up to 120 minutes at a time.

7. These Whales can dive more than 10,000 feet (3,048 m) in search of their preferred prey, which includes giant squid, sharks and fish.

8. These whales eat up to 3.5 percent of their body weight in food every day.

9. Female sperm whales form lasting relationships with other females in their family and create social groups around these bonds. Males, on the other hand, leave their matriarchal groups between 4 and 21 years old to join “bachelor schools” before eventually leading solitary lives in their later years.

Sperm Whale Strandings

beached sperm whale
Beached sperm whale. PookieFugglestein, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

People often think of Sperm Whales as the whales which strand themselves on coastlines often! This is for a few reasons, which will be unpacked below. Have a read of some instances and cases of Sperm Whale stranding:

Along the Dutch Coast

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, there were at least twenty recorded sperm whale stranding’s along the Dutch coast.

Usually, reports of sperm whales in the North Sea concerned two or three at a time, always young males between 12 and 18 meters long. In the autumn, groups of young bachelors leave the large pods of mothers and calves, which swim in the deep tropical and subtropical parts of the oceans.

They probably leave the pod because they can dive deeper and longer than the females and juveniles. Therefore, they can make use of other hunting grounds. From the mid 18th century till 1937, no strandings of sperm whales were reported along the Dutch coast.

In 1937, two sperm whales stranded by Terneuzen. Since then, there have been more than 10 beachings in the Netherlands.

Mass strandings of sperm whales

dead sperm whale
Dead sperm whale. Image by Snappy Shutters via Unsplash

Sometimes an entire herd of sperm whales strand. On the Danish Wadden Island Rømø, at least 16 sperm whales stranded together on December 4, 1998. In the same period, 13 sperm whales stranded at a different location. 

On January  23 1998, six sperm whales stranded on a sandbank near Sankt Peter Ordning in Sleeswijk-Holstein (Germany). Three of the animals lay close to the waterline and could be led back to deeper waters with the help of several boats. They were never seen again, so they probably survived.

In January 2016, a herd of sperm whales were again lost in the North Sea and five whales stranded together in Texel.

Sperm whale rescues

Sometimes, a sperm whale that beaches with low tide is able to swim away again at high tide. In December 2003, fishing vessels chased a group of three lost sperm whales near Ameland into deeper waters. In November 2004, two live sperm whales beached on the Richel, off of Vlieland. With all the manpower and equipment they could find, they pushed the animals back into the water and they were never seen again. This spectacular rescue was overshadowed by the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, which occurred the same day.

Causes of sperm whale standings

Scientists in Germany found a remarkable relationship between the number of strandings and the activity of the sun. Sun spots and explosions of the sun disrupt the earth’s magnetic field and could upset the whales’ sense of direction.

Whales that normally hunt in deep water, always run risks of stranding in shallow water. They ‘see’ using sound waves (a kind of sonar system). The sandbanks interfere with their sonar, confusing the animals.

In 2004, scientists discovered that stranded sperm whales showed traces of caisson’s disease. There was damage to bones, called osteonercrosis, which would occur when ascending too rapidly.

Caisson’s disease occurs with scuba divers when they ascend too rapidly to the surface, causing the nitrogen in their blood to bubble. It causes much pain and can even end in death. Scientists think that whales could be frightened by noises under water and then ascend too quickly from time to time.

Conclusion

sperm whale
Sperm whale. Image via Depositphotos

Thanks for reading Where to see Sperm Whales!

Would you like to read more about marine life? Why not have a look at the blog about blue whales or our total whale overview.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big are Sperm Whales?

Sperm Whales are one of the largest animals in the ocean. Adult males can reach lengths of up to 52 feet (15.8 meters) and weigh up to 90,000 pounds (40 metric tons), while females are generally smaller.

Where are Sperm Whales found?

Sperm Whales have a wide distribution and can be found in all oceans. They prefer deep waters and are commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions. They undertake seasonal migrations, moving from colder feeding grounds to warmer breeding areas.

How do Sperm Whales get their name?

The common name “Sperm Whale” originated during the time of commercial whaling. Whalers mistakenly believed that the white substance found in the massive fluid-filled organ in the whale’s head (now known as the spermaceti organ) was sperm. Hence, the name “Sperm Whale” was given to them.

What is the spermaceti organ?

The spermaceti organ is a unique structure found in the head of Sperm Whales. It contains a waxy, white substance called spermaceti. Its exact function is still not fully understood, but it is believed to play a role in buoyancy control, sound production, and echolocation.

How do Sperm Whales communicate?

Sperm Whales are known for their powerful sonar abilities. They produce a series of clicks, known as “clangs,” which are the loudest animal-produced sounds in the world. These clicks are used for communication, echolocation, and finding prey in the dark depths of the ocean.

What do Sperm Whales eat?

Sperm Whales are apex predators and primarily feed on a diet of squid. They also consume fish and occasionally other marine organisms. An adult Sperm Whale can consume over 900 kilograms (almost 2,000 pounds) of food per day.

Do Sperm Whales live in groups?

Yes, Sperm Whales are social animals and often live in groups called pods. A pod typically consists of females and their young, while adult males may roam alone or move between different pods. The pod structure and social behavior of Sperm Whales are complex and not yet fully understood.

Are Sperm Whales endangered?

Sperm Whales have faced significant threats from commercial whaling in the past, which severely reduced their population numbers. Although whaling has largely ceased, Sperm Whales are still considered vulnerable to extinction. They face ongoing threats from entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, and noise disturbance.

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