11 Blubbery Facts About Sperm Whales

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Let’s dive into the mystique and majesty of these real-life leviathans.

1. Adult Sperm Whales Have the Biggest Brains on Earth.

Your brain only weighs about 3 pounds, but a sperm whale's brain can weigh up to 17 pounds. But humans do have much bigger brains proportionally-speaking: grey matter occupies 2 percent of our body weight and a meager .02 percent of a sperm whale’s. So maybe we should just call it a draw.

2. Sperm Whales are Named After the White, Waxy Substance they Produce

When early whalers began finding this material (which is generated by a barrel-like organ inside the animal’s head), they assumed it had some kind of reproductive function and dubbed the stuff “spermaceti” (Latin for “whale seed”).

Wondering about this goo’s function? Join the club. For centuries, naturalists have tried to discern its biological role. Some suspect that spermaceti helps regulate buoyancy while others think it evolved as a shock-absorber to protect the brains of hormonal, head-butting males during mating season. [PDF] A third hypothesis focuses on sound—perhaps it helps shape long-distance sperm whale vocalizations.

3. They Love Squid, Even Giant Squids

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There isn’t a calamari-lover on earth who could rival a sperm whale’s gusto for squid. Females gobble up 700-800 of ‘em every single day while males generally put away a more modest 300-400. Stomach contents reveal that giant squids are among the several dozen species on a sperm whale’s menu. However, if the nasty-looking suction cup-shaped scars pictured above are any indication, they appear to be one costly entrée.

4. Sperm Whales Are World-Class Divers

The mammals have been recorded descending to depths of over 3,280 feet and can go 90 minutes between breaths.

5. They’re the World’s Largest Toothed Predators

Blue and fin whales may be bigger, but, unlike those filter-feeders, sperm whales use stout, pointy teeth come mealtime (though only their lower jaws have such chompers: these slide into corresponding holes on toothless upper jaws).

6. Males Are, on Average, Three Times Heavier

Differences between the sexes are hardly skin-deep. Socially, female sperm whales form tight-knit communities, while males lead relatively lonely lives after reaching maturity.

7. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was Based on a True Story About an Enraged Sperm Whale

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This stranger-than-fiction incident unfolded in the South Pacific on November 20, 1820, when a gigantic male slammed into a New England whaling vessel called The Essex. Beaten and battered, her 21 crewman abandoned the sinking ship, leaping onto three oar-driven whaleboats before she went under. Afterwards, a toilsome, 3000-mile journey across open, unforgiving ocean awaited these rattled survivors. Several perished en route and many of their companions clung to life by resorting to cannibalism before finally getting rescued off the coast of Chile.

8. Their Lower Jaws “Coil” Occasionally

Many otherwise healthy specimens with severely-deformed jawlines have been found over the years, including a few whose lower jaws had been warped into a “corkscrew” shape.

9. Sperm Whales Can Recognize Each Other’s Voices

On diving trips, members of sperm whale pods keep in touch with their compatriots via long-distance clicks. Amazingly, even when two individuals repeat the exact same pattern, their faraway friends can tell them apart thanks to each animal’s unique inflections.

10. Spermaceti Once Illuminated the Industrialized World

Smokeless candles can be made out of the material, a fact which almost drove these majestic mammals into extinction. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, spermaceti-fueled lanterns, streetlights, and lighthouses were in high demand. Sadly, meeting that demand called for the deaths of an estimated 236,000 sperm whales in the 1700s alone. This overhunting eventually sent the industry into chaos as cetaceans grew progressively scarcer. By 1846, profits had dwindled and the price of spermaceti doubled. Fortunately for consumers and sperm whales, an alternative energy source soon came to light when Canadian geologist Abner Gesner developed a longer-lasting kerosene-based lamp fuel which all but eradicated the sperm whaling trade.

11. Dead Ones Are Prone to Exploding

If you see a beached whale corpse, you might wanna consider stepping back. Decaying cadavers have, on numerous occasions, violently erupted in front of stunned human audiences. Gasses released inside the animals’ bodies during decomposition are known to build up & rip through flesh in a powerful burst of malodorous airborne entrails.

Curiously, these incidents tend to disproportionately involve sperm whales as was the case in 2006, when a rotting specimen made international headlines by splattering its vital organs all over a busy Taiwanese street. And last year, another one popped on the Faroe Islands, as you can see in this clip (not for the faint of heart).