Sperm Whales are some of the largest animals in the oceans. People tend to wonder ‘Where to see Sperm Whales?’ In sightings they are easily identified for their striking large block -shaped forehead. This blog will unpack their interesting lives and history.
The whale’s common name originated during the height of the commercial whaling industry, from around the end of the 18th century through the 19th century.
The head of the sperm whale contains a massive fluid-filled organ (which whalers in those days called the “case”).
During whale harvests, this organ, now called the spermaceti organ, was discovered to contain a white liquid that whalers mistook for the sperm of the whale, hence their common name- the sperm whale.
The spermaceti organ is unique to sperm whales, although bottlenose whales possess a similar organ.
It has a volume as large as 2,000 litres (530 gallons) and can extend through 40 percent of the whale’s total length. This substance was considered massively useful due to its wax-like properties.
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Sperm whales have several specialised physical characteristics that assist in their predatory behaviour. They have large conical teeth in their mouths for ensnaring their preferred prey.Additionally, like most active predators, they have very large brains.
In fact, the sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on the planet! They also have the most powerful sonar of any animal, which they use to find their prey in the dark deep sea.
Moreover, they also have an ability to dive to incredible depths (up to 1000 meters) and stay down for incredible lengths of time (up to two hours), both abilities increasing their likelihood of finding prey.
As a result of their deep-sea behaviours, sperm whales typically live in waters of several thousand meters deep and are rarely seen along the coast except in areas where deep trenches or underwater canyons approach the shore.
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 whale males reach sexual maturity around 18 years old and females at 9 years old. Males battle for mating rights, and then breed with multiple females. Male sperm whales do not create harems of females like other animals. The females then reproduce until they reach their forties and go on to live into their seventies.
The sperm whale pregnancy term lasts about 15 months, resulting in a single calf. Sperm whales give birth to only one calf at a time, and at birth, baby Sperm Whales are considerably large – over 13 feet (4 m) long.
The birth is always a social event, with the rest of the sperm whale pod forming a protective barrier around the birthing mother and her calf.
Because calves cannot undertake the deep, long dives that their mothers do, groups of mothers form tight bonds and share the responsibility of protecting calves at the surface. While one or more mothers dive, others stay with at the surface with the young.
Pods and Family
Sperm whales are often spotted in groups (called pods) of some 15 to 20 animals. Pods include females and their young, while males may roam solo or move from group to group.
Females and calves remain in tropical or subtropical waters all year long, and apparently practice communal childcare. Males migrate to higher latitudes, alone or in groups, and head back towards the equator to breed. Driven by their tale fluke, approximately 16 feet from tip to tip, they can cruise the oceans at around 23 miles per hour.
These popular leviathans are vocal and emit a series of “clangs” that may be used for communication or for echolocation. Animals that use echolocation emit sounds that travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back to their senders—revealing the location, size, and shape of their target.
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 usually eat a little over 900 kg (almost 2,000 pounds) of food every single day. To find their prey (preferably giant squid), they dive somewhere between 300 and 1,200 metres (990 and 4,000 feet), though they can go as deep as 2 km (1.2 miles) while on the hunt.
An average dive lasts about an hour. Using echolocation to focus on their prey, sperm whales generate a series of clicks that are the loudest animal-caused noises in the world.
These Whales teeth along its bottom jaw are about 18 to 20 cm long (7.1 to 7.9 inches), fitting into sockets along the underside of the palate. The upper teeth of a sperm whale never grow out of its upper jaw. Scientists believe that sperm whales and giant squid are natural enemies.
While no actual battles have ever been observed, sperm whales sometimes carry round scars believed to have come from the suckers of giant squid.
When hunting smaller fish, sperm whale pods can work together to force feeder fish into ball-like clumps that are more substantial to eat than individuals.
9 Fun Facts About Sperm Whales
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.
Where to See Sperm Whales
Sperm whales are found in all oceans. Being a shallow coastal sea, the North Sea is not suitable for them. World-wide, there are 500,000 to 2 million specimen. In the winter, they migrate from northerly regions to the south, including the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes, they swim into the North Sea.
Because the North Sea is relatively shallow for sperm whales, it doesn’t take long before they beach. In the winter of 2016, at least fifteen lost sperm whales were observed in the North Sea. Because the North Sea is too shallow for sperm whales, they get stranded for a short time along the coasts.
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Whale sighting can be tricky and is never absolute guaranteed by any tour provider. However, if you’re lucky, and the season and location is good for the year- you may just get lucky and see these special animals for yourself…
Stranding’s of sperm whales
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
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.
Summary on Sperm Whales
There are so many interesting things about the Sperm Whale to know! Learning about their size and behaviours has been immensely interesting. As well as looking at beach strandings that occur with these whales when they get disoriented.