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Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

All text on this page is copyright protected: © 2014 Kelvin Aitken.
All rights reserved. Students may use this information for personal research only. Not for commercial use.

Order: Cetacea
Family: Physeteridae
Genus: Physeter
Species: macrocephalus
Taxonomic name: Physeter macrocephalus
Other Common Names: Common Cachelot, Cachelot.

Sperm Whales belong to the Physeteridae family of toothed whales.

Calves are born at 3.5-4.5 meters and grow to 12 meters, if it is a female, or 18 meters if a male.

The mighty Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) can be found in all oceans from the tropics to the poles. Females tend to stay together with calves and sub adults in tropical to temperate zones from 0-40 degrees latitude with mature bulls tending to be solitary and travelling closer to the polar ice floes. These mature bulls visit the tropical “harems” during winter months to breed and socialise. Other groups which are non-breeding contain bachelor pods of immature bulls or assortments of sub adults.

The appearance of Sperm Whales is unique and, when seen clearly, unmistakable. They are a toothed whale with heavy dentition in the slender lower jaw used to grasp their prey. The head is massive, square to slightly bulging in profile, narrow when viewed from above and taking up at least 1/4, sometimes 1/3, of the total body length. There is a single blowhole set on the port (left) upper front corner of the head which blows a conical spout at a 45 degree angle. The eye is small and set midway down the body behind the narrow jaw and forward of the small paddle-shaped pectoral fins. The skin is light to dark brownish-grey with pale patches around the mouth and genitals and appears to be wrinkled, as if left in the water for too long. The dorsal fin is a low rounded hump followed by a series of knuckle-like bumps which are clearly seen when the whale rolls forward to dive. The tail is broad, sculptured and, when undamaged or newborn, with a clean edge. Marks on the tail from fights or attacks from killer whales are used to identify individuals.

Sperm Whales are deep water oceanic dwellers, rarely coming into waters shallower than 180 meters. They are able to dive to at least 2.8 kilometres and stay submerged for over an hour. When surfacing they rise vertically, levelling out at the last minute to blow from their forward mounted blowhole. The whale then rests, taking a number of breaths over a few minutes, or anywhere up to an hour, then performs a “stretch”, taking a breath and submerging completely without diving as they inversely arch their backs. This is followed by the final dive which always, unless the whale is harassed, shows the rolling knuckled rear portion of the spine followed by the huge flukes which are lifted up well clear of the surface.

During their deep dives Sperm Whales feed primarily on squid, including the enigmatic Architeuthis or Giant Squid as well as various fish species including deep water sharks, salmon, cod and rays. Their head contains a giant reservoir of spermaceti oil which is part of their sonar equipment used to detect and possibly stun their prey. It is this oil for which Sperm Whales were primarily hunted. Using their blowhole it has been postulated that the sperm whale can alter its buoyancy at depth by drawing in cold sea water to cool the oil, thereby partially or completely solidifying the spermaceti oil to subtly altering their entire buoyancy.

Females care for their young as a group. The mother of a calf can therefore feed at normal depths with the rest of the pod being present by turns to care for calves at the surface. When danger threatens the entire pod forms a circle or “rosette”; tails out with calves protected in the centre.

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