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The sperm whale will forever be associated with Herman Melville’s 1851 tale, Moby Dick, a story of a sea captain’s obsession with a whale that gave humans a taste of their own medicine. It was based on the 1820 upending of the Nantucket whaler, Essex, 1,800 miles off Chile’s coast. Melville’s novel is considered one the best pieces of American literature ever written. To America’s economic development, the sperm whale made no less a contribution.
The largest of the toothed whales, the magnificent sperm whale is as large as some of the baleens. Males grow to over fifty feet and weigh as much as seventy tons. Females are a little over half the length and about a quarter of the weight. The whale is dark grayish-brown, and rarely, as in Melville’s novel, white. The wrinkled appearance of its skin makes the sperm whale immediately recognizable as does the square shape of its enormous head, comprising up to a third of its body. The whale has no dorsal fin, rather a wavy dorsal hump that extends from the middle of its back to its fluke. The powerful blow, recognizable to visitors on Galapagos Islands whale watching tours or elsewhere, projects at a 45 degree angle.
The sperm whale swims fast and deep, traveling up to twenty miles an hour. It can dive a mile down in search of its prey, a diet that may contain octopus, skate and other fish in addition to squid, its meal of choice. The species can hold its breath longer than any other whale, over two hours. Sperm whales are found throughout the world. They do not migrate and most inhabit temperate and tropical waters, though visitors on whale watching tours to Antarctica may see single male sperm whales near pack ice or in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. In the Southern Hemisphere, sperm whales inhabit the edge of continental shelf and deeper waters. At certain times of year, visitors may see sperm whales during travel to Brazil, on Chile tours, Galapagos Islands cruises or Costa Rica tours.
Gestation of the sperm whale is about fifteen months. The calf remains with the mother for up to two years. Sperm whales establish long-lasting bonds, traveling in pods of females and calves except during breeding seasons that occur every four years. Sperm whales travel solo at times but also in large groups, using clicking sounds that scientists believe are used to communicate in deep waters where no light can reach.
For American whalers, the sperm whale was long prized among species for the useful products that could be harvested from its various body parts. Of greatest value was the oil called spermaceti that the creature carried in its head and manufacturing nations used as an industrial lubricant. Scientists now believe that spermaceti may be part of the animal’s navigational apparatus, serve as protection or help to make the whale buoyant. Of high quality, spermaceti was used in lamps and candles since, unlike other oils, it produced little soot. To occupy themselves in the evening during their long hunting voyages, whalers began carving the sperm whale’s cone-shaped teeth, a technique that came to be known as scrimshaw. The 1976 international treaty that banned the ivory trade ended the sale of scrimshaw. Ladies take note. One substance produced by the sperm whale is still in demand. The ambergris that accumulates on the beaks of squid remains undigested in the intestines of sperm whales. Harvested from the dead whale, it remains an ingredient in expensive perfumes, added for the purposes of slowing the liquid’s evaporation to prolong the scent.
Sperm whales have a lifespan of over sixty years. After centuries of slaughter, the sperm whale has miraculously survived and today is not considered endangered. It is believed that some 750,000 sperm whales inhabit the world’s seas of which over 200,000 may be in the Southern Hemisphere.
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