Often considered the archetypal whale, the sperm whale was subject to intense whaling during the 19th century, and again from the 1950's to the end of the 1970's. Commercial whalers sought the sperm whale for its fine oil, dark meat, unique spermaceti and mysterious ambergris. Not a whale to go down without a fight, the sperm whale earned a ferocious reputation among 19th century whalers.
The reality though is that the sperm whale is a relatively shy, cerebral animal. It was this discovery in the 1950's and 1960's that helped put the sperm whale at the forefront of the movement to end commercial whaling.
When the last sperm whale was harpooned by the commercial whaling industry in 1978, around 360,000 still remained — a relatively large number compared with other great whale species. The global sperm whale population hasn't changed much since then and the animal is considered "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
What's a Sperm Whale?
Sperm whales are Odontecetes, meaning they are not baleen whales but instead sport an impressive set of teeth. These teeth, which are usually only found in the lower jaw, measure up to 10 inches in fully grown males. They are cone-shaped and strong — perfect for grabbing and holding on to slippery prey like squid. Although orcas (killer whales) will sometimes hunt whales — even the enormous blue whale — they seem less willing to tangle with the sperm whale and its formidable mouth. After all, sperm whales are by far the largest toothed carnivores in the world.
Sperm whales get their name from the distinctive spermaceti organ on the top of their head. This bulbous organ is full of oil, which turns into a wax-like substance at room temperature. The actual purpose of the organ is unknown, though scientists speculate that it could be used for echolocation, as a buoyancy aid during dives, or as a battering ram. Whatever its function, it clearly gives the sperm whale a massive melon. In some cases, sperm whale heads measures as much as one-third of the animal's total length. Other Odontecetes, such as dolphins, have this type of organ, but the sperm whale easily boasts the most extreme example.
Unlike baleen whales, sperm whales live in extended family groups and females remain in these groups throughout life. These family units can include up to 50 whales, and members of the same family unit have been seen exhibiting altruism towards other members, much like dolphins. Males near the poles, however, tend to be solitary and, in fact, only male sperm whales are found in Antarctic water.
Sperm whales feed primarily on cephalopods, such as squid and octopuses, and many sperm whales bear scars from the suckers of their prey. Cephalopods generally live in deep waters, so sperm whales can often be found at depths of up to 3 kilometers below the surface.