This article is about an insanely loud creature that can grow to be 20 meters long and weigh up to 80 tonnes. Now, before you make any witty remarks about my mother, I assure you that you’re not as clever as you think you are and you’re not ready to tread down that path. Instead, I want to tell you about the greatest animal that’s ever blessed God’s green earth with its presence. The animal that possesses the largest brain in the entire animal kingdom: the sperm whale.
I know what you’re thinking: How did this magnificent animal earn this unflattering name? Ignorance is the answer. The term originates from the 18th century whaling industry where it was believed that the waxy substance found inside the sperm whale’s head was its actual sperm. This substance, the spermaceti, was refined into various waxes and oils that were used for everything from candles and lamp fuel to lubricants for cars, airplanes, and weapons. To that end, together with sales of whale meat and blubber, an approximate 1,100,000 sperm whales were killed until commercial whaling was banned in 1986. An ungodly amount if you ask me.
The actual purpose of the organ that’s producing and storing the spermaceti is vocalization. Yes, you read that right. The sperm whale takes multiple deep breaths of air before submerging, staying below the surface for up to two hours and reaching depths of up to two kilometers. Down there, it uses pulsating clicking sounds as loud as jet engines to communicate with its friends and family, each having their own distinct sounds just like humans have unique voices. Equally impressive, the sounds they emit are used for echolocation: the sperm whale is able to navigate and find prey in the darkness by listening to the returning sound waves, using the spermaceti to focus the direction of the clicks. This might remind you of bats, which is totally correct, except that bats are weak and can’t compare to the brilliance of the sperm whale. Who would you put your money on in a fight? A boomerang-throwing “bat-man” or the hero of the upcoming blockbuster Sperm-whale-man? I know who I’d pick.
A natural consequence of having a brain five times the size of a human’s – and of storing up to 1900 liters of spermaceti next to your cranium – is that you need a massive head. In fact, the sperm whale’s head is so big that it makes up one-third of its length. This has given rise to its alternative (and arguably more worthy) name: cachalot (”kaskelot” in Swedish), which is a word derived from Portuguese literally meaning “big head”. It has been speculated that the head is used as a battering ram when male specimens engage in some good old headbutting combat – a behavior we can observe among humans as well – although this phenomena has been hard to prove. Something we do know however, is that there are two recorded historical events where provoked sperm whales have sunken actual ships. Do the names Ann Alexander and Essex ring any bells?
It was the summer of 1850. The whaler Ann Alexander weighed anchor in the harbor of New Bedford, Massachusetts and set sail towards the Pacific. Remember, this was before the construction of the Panama Canal, which meant that the sailors had to travel past Brazil and through the treacherous waters surrounding Cape Horn at the south tip of Chile before they could turn north again.
After months of intermediate errands they eventually made their way to Peru for a final stop before embarking on their journey out west towards the more whale-dense waters. On the 20th of August in 1851 they encountered and harpooned a sperm whale, who in turn destroyed not only two smaller vessels but also sank the main ship: Ann Alexander. The captain and his 22 crewmen fled the scene with limited resources in their smaller boats and were rescued two days later by another American ship. The sperm whale was unfortunately found and killed five months later.
While the adventure for the ones aboard Ann Alexander had a relatively happy ending, the same cannot be said for the crew that sailed the American whaler called Essex. After departing from Nantucket, Massachusetts on the 12th of August in 1819, they made a similar trip around Chile and ended up visiting one of the smaller Galápagos islands to restock their supplies. So far so good, but here is where the story starts to get out of hand. They started off by collecting food, which in this case meant capturing 300 giant tortoises and stacking them in the cargo hold without food and water. They somehow believed that the tortoises wouldn’t starve for at least a year. On the contrary, the animals were soon after seen licking anything they could find on deck in search of food. Nonetheless, malnourished tortoises were better than resorting to cannibalism, something the crewmates eventually would find out the hard way – more on that later. During the act of significantly depleting the island’s tortoise population, one of the sailors decided to perform what in hindsight could be called the worst prank in history. Even though it was at the height of the dry-season, he felt that a small fire in the bush would be a fun surprise for his fellow colleagues as they were hunting tortoises. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long before the fire got out of control and they had no choice but to quickly leave the island which literally burnt to the ground.
The voyage continued, and with the smoke pillars slowly fading in the distance they were ready to start whaling. On the 20th of November in 1820, one of the smaller boats was struck by the tail of a harpooned whale, requiring them to head back to the Essex for repairs. Seemingly, the noise of the reparations caught the attention of an abnormally large sperm whale who struck the ship twice, causing it to capsize. The crew salvaged what they could using the three remaining boats, but they rapidly began to realize the dire odds that were set against them: they were almost four thousand kilometers away from the coast of South America. During the course of three months, the sailors struggled for survival as they tried to navigate their way to a nearby island. The tortoises they brought were soon substituted for the flesh of their friends, and in one of the boats they even drew straws on who to kill and eat next. This gruesome story holds many more details than what’s possible to fit here, but ultimately eight of the original 20 crew members were saved by passing ships and they lived to tell the tale upon their return to the US in 1821. Strangely, it didn’t take long before every single one of them sought work at other ships to embark on new journeys at sea.
If there ever was a man who could turn a whaling tragedy into a classic novel, it certainly was Herman Melville. Drawing inspiration from his own years as a whaler and the fate of the Essex, he released a book called Moby-Dick in 1851. I know what you’re thinking: How did this magnificent novel receive such a profound name? It turns out that there was an exceptionally elusive, albino sperm whale living in the early 1800s, famous for its strength and difficulty to catch. Its name was a combination of the island called Mocha and the (not at all problematic) English first name Dick. Indeed, Mocha Dick survived so many encounters with whalers that it received quite the reputation over the years, and when it finally was killed in 1838 it was reported to have twenty harpoons in its body. Melville did not only borrow the name for his book, but the fictional sperm whale Moby-Dick is also depicted as albino.
Now, let’s move away from the horrors of whaling and the damage it has caused to our beloved whale, and let’s once more rejoice over this extraordinary animal. I want to leave you with a final, and perhaps the most peculiar, thing you need to know about the sperm whale: the consequences of its diet. Imagine if you as a gluten intolerant zoomer could eagerly eat as much pasta and bread as you’d like, knowing that your irritated bowel could turn the grains into gold. This would be the case for the sperm whale if that big fish brain had any possibility of grasping the concept of monetary value.
You see, the sperm whale's favorite food is the giant squid, of which it can eat hundreds each and every day. And although the sperm whale is the largest toothed animal in existence, it doesn’t use its teeth when eating. Instead, the squid is swallowed whole, fighting for its life on its way down to the first of the four stomach chambers that are part of the sperm whale’s
300 meter (world record long) intestinal system. The squid has a beak that is difficult to digest, and when these get stuck in the stomach they can cause the formation of yet another waxy substance: ambergris – a lump of gray matter with a scent so unique that it seems hard to put into words. One source described the odor as “mysteriously musky”, whatever that means, and perfume makers are willing to pay a hefty amount of money for it. It’s not rare to see prices above $50 000 USD per kilogram, placing it in the same ballpark as pure gold.
What’s that? You’re wondering how to find your own ambergris? Before you get too excited, there are two important things to consider. For starters, you have to be very lucky. When the ambergris – one way or another – finally exits the sperm whale’s bowels, it floats around the vast oceans before drifting ashore on a random beach somewhere on the globe, ready to be discovered. Moreover, for the same reason you cannot hunt down a whale and extract the ambergris yourself due to the 1986 ban, you are not allowed to trade ambergris in many regions of the world – including the EU and the US. However, this hasn’t stopped people from finding and selling ambergris in other areas, which is why articles about transactions in the seven figure range (in USD) show up from time to time.
Sadly, we’ve reached the end of our whale tale. Does your average-sized brain hurt from processing all the whale facts? If so, that’s totally fine. All I’m hoping is that you, after reading this, are as convinced as I am that it’s our duty as whale scholars to spread the word about the great sperm whale to as many people as possible. It’s the least we can do to honor our fallen companions. I’ll see you in the Pacific.