Sperm Whales and Humans: Threats, Whaling, Smashed Boats and Moby Dick

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sperm whale on Japanese whaling vessel
Commercial whaling from 1800 to the 1980s greatly decreased sperm whale population worldwide. Great numbers of them were taken from the Gulf of Mexico. In many cases they were hunted with less intensity that the baleen whales in part because bull whales fought back viciously and tore part many whaling boats in the 19th century. Sperm whales were no match for modern industrial whaling.[Source: NOAA]

In the whaling era, the one of most valued sperm whale materials was spermaceti, a substance valued as a lubricant for fine machinery and a component of automatic transmission fluid. It is also used in making ointments and fine, smokeless candles (once it solidifies into a white wax upon exposure to air). The head of the sperm whale contains three to four tons of the stuff. [Source: Liz Ballenger, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

The meat of sperm whale was generally not consumed. In addition to spermaceti, the teeth were also valued as a kind of ivory. They were used in an artistic form of engraving and carving known as scrimshaw. The oil once used as fuel for lamps and as a lubricant and later as a base for skin creams and cosmetics.

For years mysterious gigantic blobs showed up on beaches around the world. Some speculated they were tissue from a giant octopus or squid or perhaps a new giant creature unknown to science. DNA analysis and a detailed autopsy of 12-meter-long blob — which some scientists insisted had tentacles — washed up on a beach in Chile in 2003 and determined to be the carcass of a sperm whale. The determination was made in part based on the presence of glands in the blob that only sperm whales have (but maybe the blob was a giant creature that ate a sperm whale).

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Sperm Whales and Whaling

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Hunting of sperm whale
Sperm whales were a prime target of the commercial whaling industry from 1800 to 1987. They were hunted heavily in the whaling era and after World War II. In the mid-1970s, 15,000 were still being taken annually. They were in high demand for spermaceti (described above and below), their whalebone, ivory, and blubber Catching sperm whales is hard because they dived and sometimes violently fought back. Logbooks from American whalers, which recorded details of their expeditions in the North Pacific during the 19th century, such as the number of whales spotted or harpooned, revealed that whalers had a very low success rate killing sperm whales. In almost 80,000 'voyage days' recorded, there were only 2,405 successful whale sightings, a mere 3 percent success rate. The advent of steam-powered ship and and grenade harpoons in the later years of the 19th century in the end proved to much for them and they were doomed to mass slaughter like many other whale species. [Source: NOAA, Naina Bhardwaj, Insider, March 20, 2021]

Eric Wagner wrote in Smithsonian magazine: In 1712, so the story goes, one Captain Hussey’s vessel was blown offshore south of Nantucket Island while hunting right whales for their oil. Hussey happened upon a pod of sperm whales, killed one and dragged it home. The animal’s huge head brimmed with a peculiar waxy substance, called spermaceti (“seed of the whale”) after the mistaken belief it was seminal fluid. Spermaceti oil was versatile, and of a much higher quality than oils that came from the blubber of other whale species. As a liquid, it fueled lamps; congealed, it could be fashioned into smokeless candles, fine soaps and cosmetics. Hundreds upon hundreds of ships from North America and Europe were soon plying the world’s oceans in search of sperm and other whales. “Whaling was the oil industry of its day,” says Hal Whitehead, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and an expert on sperm whale behavior. “Oil from the sperm whale quite literally lubricated the Industrial Revolution.” At the revolution’s height, in the mid-1800s, whalers killed perhaps 5,000 sperm whales a year. [Source: Eric Wagner, Smithsonian magazine, December 2011]

The industry captured the popular imagination. “Old-time whaling had a dual identity,” Whitehead says. “It was a way of getting stuff we needed, but it was also a wild, romantic chase. A lot of art was linked to the sperm whale.” But the need for spermaceti decreased with the drilling of petroleum and natural gas wells and the harnessing of electricity. By the 1880s, whaling’s early phase was on the decline. The reprieve would last until 1925, when “factory ships” set sail from Norway, bristling with harpoon guns and designed with slipways for sailors to haul whales aboard for quick processing. A whale once sighted was effectively dead.

20120522-sperm whale Whaling_of_sperm_whale.jpg The factory ship’s speed and artless efficiency made whale hunting cost-effective. Whaling would increase significantly after World War II, and by 1958, more than 20,000 sperm whales were killed each year to be turned into margarine, cattle fodder, dog food, vitamin supplements, glue, leather preservative and brake fluid. The global population of sperm whales and other whale species declined so drastically that in 1982 the International Whaling Commission, a body established in 1946 to monitor whale populations, issued a moratorium on commercial whaling. It’s hard to count such an elusive species, but Whitehead estimates that before commercial whaling began, there were more than one million sperm whales. Now that number may be around 360,000, and it’s unclear whether the population is increasing.

Sinking of The Essex by a Large Bull Sperm Whale

There are lots of stories in whaling lore of attacks by sperm whales on ships but documented sperm whale attacks on ships are rare. The most famous one occurred in November 1820, when a large bull, said to be 85 feet long and weigh over 80 tons, rammed the copper-and-oak hull of 238-ton whaleship “Essex", sinking her in ten minutes, and leaving 22 men stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific. The eight that survived did so by resorting to cannibalism. The event is recounted in the book In the “ Heart of Sea “by Nathaniel Philbrick (Putnam. 2000).

Survivors said the bull faced the ship, spouted from its blowhole and charged, its forehead piercing the waves and it fluke generating a froth of white water. After the whale swam off “not a word was spoken for several minutes by any of us,” the first mate wrote in his book. “All appeared to be bound in a spell of stupid consternation.” The ship sunk in the middle of the equatorial Pacific. The survivors ironically chose to go to South America 1,800 miles away rather than go to the closer Marquesas Island, in part because the islands were said to be full of cannibals.

The Essex was captained by George Pollard, It was rammed by the whale while on a two-year whaling expedition crisscrossing the Pacific. Quickly abandoning ship and thousands of miles from land, Pollard and his crew escaped in leaky lifeboats to begin a horrific ordeal resulting in sickness, starvation, and cannibalism. One of the few to survive, Pollard was given a second chance at captaining another whaler, the Two Brothers. But after 18 months in the Pacific, Pollard ran the Two Brothers aground,

Moby Dick, featuring Captain Ahab leading the “Pequod” to its doom, was inspired by the tale of Essex and written 31 years after the Essex tragedy (See Below. Whaling ships built in the 19th century were not built to withstand attacks from below. Scientists who have studied the matter have estimated that if a large bull applies the same force on a ship that he does on a rival male during the breeding season he could sink the ship.

Moby Dick

“Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville is an allegorical novel about Captain Ahab’s search to kill a great white whale. It was based on real-life events. The white sperm whale in the book for the most part is simply known as “The Whale” rather “Moby Dick.” [Source: NOAA]

Born in 1819, Melville grew up during the peak of American dominance of the whaling industry, roughly the period between 1820 and the start of the Civil War. Weaving contemporary accounts and his own experiences as a whaler, Melville created his American masterpiece. The young Melville was famously inspired by the story of George Pollard, the former captain of the whaler Essex described above.

Melville met Pollard's son and peppered him with questions about the incident. In 1839, Melville read a story in a magazine about an albino sperm whale famed for its deadly attacks on whaling ships trying to hunt it down. This whale, killed off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island, was called Mocha Dick. After the book was published its sales where given a boost when another whaling ship, the “Ann Alexander", was smashed and sunk by another enraged sperm whale.

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “ Despite being regarded today as a literary masterpiece, Moby-Dick was poorly received by both critics and the reading public. In 1852, Melville was a struggling writer in desperate need of a holiday, and in July of that year he accompanied moved to Nantucket where he lived across the street from the home of Pollard. [Source: Nathaniel Philbrick, Smithsonian magazine, December 2015]

Sperm Whales Intelligence Used to Outwit Whalers

Sara Novak wrote in Discover: When it comes to brains, is size all that matters? There’s a lot we don’t know about sperm whale intelligence because it’s difficult to carry out neurological testing on a marine mammal of this magnitude. But some clues point to sperm whales being much smarter than we give them credit for. [Source:Sara Novak, Discover, November 19, 2022]

A March 2021 study published in Biology Letters looked back to 19th-century historical logbooks from whalers. Researchers found that sperm whales were at first easy to catch — but almost immediately, the whales learned how to evade hunters and whaling success plummeted by 60 percent. The study hypothesizes that the whales passed information to one another through echolocation to avoid being caught.

Business Insider reported: “The study's authors, cetacean researchers Professor Hal Whitehead and Dr. Luke Rendell, as well as data scientist Dr. Tim D Smith, found that the strike rate of the whalers' harpoons fell by 58 percent in less than two and half years after they first began hunting in the region. In Halifax, Canada, Professor Whitehead of Dalhousie University told The Owen Sun Sound Times: "That was very remarkable. I thought there might be a drop, but not that much and not that quickly. “Usually, you expect it to increase as they figure out stuff and become more successful. That's typically how our exploitation of wildlife goes. We become more efficient as we learn how to do it." [Source: Naina Bhardwaj, Insider, March 20, 2021]

“The study concluded that sperm whales had learned how they were being killed, shared this information with their pod and changed their behavior accordingly, displaying 'cultural evolution.' The species live with their children in female-only pods or groups, allowing them to form close links and share tips to evade hunters. The hunters recognized the sperm whales had developed tactics to evade them. Instead of forming defensive squares used to fight off their natural predators, the killer whale, the sperm whales, understood that swimming against the wind would allow them to outrun the wind-powered hunters' ships.

Sperm Whale Products: Teeth and Spermaceti

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In the 19th century fist-size sperm whale teeth were made into pipes and buttons; the bones were cut onto pieces and used for toys, buggy whips and fishing rod tops; he blubber was used to light lamps; the glycerin was a key ingredient in dynamite, lipstick and crayons; and the blood was dumped on gardens as fertilizer. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest after being assassinated his widow placed a sperm whale’s tooth in his coffin. She had earlier picked it out to give it to him as a Christmas present.

Sperm whales were prized by whalers because the vast cavity in the top of their head was filled with a large quantity of waxy liquid called spermaceti oil, which was prized in the old days as a lubricant and lamplight oil and the main component of high quality candles. The oil was used until fairly recently as an ingredient for face creams and medicines. Both males and females yield spermaceti oil. Spermaceti oil is different from the oil that is squeezed for sperm whale blubber and blubber of other whales.

Sperm oil, extracted from the spermaceti organ and from the blubber, remains liquid even at low temperatures and was used as a fine industrial lubricant. Spermaceti itself when cooled solidifies into a waxy substance, was used for making candles and ointments. Sperm whales also produce ambergris, probably from waste coalescing around indigestible substances in the intestinal tract. Ambergris is used as a fixative in the manufacture of perfume. /=\


Ambergris is a gummy, fatty substance prized by perfume makers that is secreted in the intestines of sperm whales to protect them from irritants such the sharp beaks of squids. Ambergris floats and its ability to emit a sweet odor and prolong the smell of other fragrances, has made it perfect for stabilizing the scent of perfumes. Its properties were discovered by Arab fishermen who found ambergris floating in their nets. According to Herman Melville in “Moby Dick”it was “worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist.” The Japanese word for its, “ryuzenko", literally means — an incense made of dragon saliva.”

Ambergris is prized because it amplifies fragrances and affixes them to the skin. Nuggets of ambergris form in the guts of sperm whales and are excreted into the ocean. They can be fund floating on the surface of the water or washed ashore. When it is exposed to air, it hardens and acquires a sweet, earthy smell. The scent is said to be dunglike at first but grows musky after exposure to seawater and air. Ambergris scent varies from piece to piece — earthy to salty to animalish. Whiter chunks often smell sweet, some like vanilla. [Source: National Geographic]

Ambergris was once believed to have medicinal qualities, but it is now used in connection with manufacture of perfumes, For centuries it has been collected along shorelines.The island Ambergris Cay, just south of the Gulf of Mexico, was given its name because of the great quantities of this substance gathered along its shores.

The heaviest piece of ambergris was recovered by a Norwegian ship from a whale off of Tasmania. The 1,003 pound lump sold in London in 1912 for $111,780. In recent years chemists have unlocked the secret of ambergris and it can now be produced synthetically. Molecular biologist Joerg Bohlmann is among the scientists trying to synthesize a replacement for ambergris . His team has found a way to reproduce a balsam fir compound that provides a perfume fixative.

Endangered Sperm Whales

big hunks of ambergris

The International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The species is still recovering, and its numbers are likely increasing. Currently, there is no exact accounting of the total number of sperm whales worldwide. The best estimate of worldwide sperm whale population is between 300,000 and 450,000 individuals. [Source: NOAA]

Sperm whales were once quite abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, but due to commercial whaling they are seldom seen there anymore. Worldwide however, sperm whales populations are more stable than that of many other whales, although they continue to be listed as endangered. By some reckoning sperm whales are now the most abundant of the great whales. Worldwide, sperm whales number about 1,500,000.

Sperm whales are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and lsited as endangered throughout their range. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects them ans says they are depleted throughout their range.

NOAA Fisheries and its partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the sperm whale population. They use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue these endangered whales by developing regulations and management plans that encourage recovery, foster healthy fisheries, reduce the risk of entanglements, create whale-safe shipping practices, and reduce ocean noise. [Source: NOAA]

Threats to Sperm Whales

Threats include vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise, marine debris, climate change, oil spills and contaminants. Sperm whales can ingest marine debris, as do many marine animals. Debris in the deep scattering layer where sperm whales feed could be mistaken for prey and incidentally ingested, leading to possible injury or death. [Source: NOAA]

Vessel Strikes: Inadvertent vessel strikes can injure or kill sperm whales. Few vessel strikes to sperm whales have been documented, but vessel traffic worldwide is increasing, which increases the risk of collisions. Additionally, since sperm whales spend long periods, typically up to 10 min “rafting” at the surface between deep dives, this behavior makes them more vulnerable to vessel strikes.

Sperm whale tooth
Entanglement: Sperm whales can become entangled in many different types of fishing gear, including trap lines, pots, and gillnets. Once entangled, they may swim for long distances dragging attached gear, potentially resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury. These conditions can lead to reduced reproductive success and death.

Sperm whales have also been documented to remove fish from longline gear, a behavior known as “depredation.” They do this by using their long jaw to create tension on the line, which snaps fish off the hooks. In addition, scientists think that this behavior may be learned between individuals. Depredation sometimes results in injury or entanglement.

Ocean Noise: Underwater noise pollution can interrupt the normal behavior of sperm whales, which rely on sound to communicate. As ocean noise increases from human sources, communication space decreases — the whales cannot hear each other, or discern other signals in their environment as they used to in an undisturbed ocean. Different levels of sound can disturb important activities, such as feeding, migrating, and socializing. Mounting evidence from scientific research has documented that ocean noise also causes marine mammals to change the frequency or amplitude of calls, decrease foraging behavior, become displaced from preferred habitat, or increase the level of stress hormones in their bodies. If loud enough, noise can cause permanent or temporary hearing loss.

Climate Change: The effects of climate and oceanographic change on sperm whales are uncertain, but both can potentially greatly affect habitat and food availability. Site selection for whale migration, feeding, and breeding for sperm whales may be influenced by factors such as ocean currents and water temperature. Increases in global temperatures are expected to have profound impacts on arctic and subarctic ecosystems, and these impacts are projected to accelerate during this century. However, the feeding range of sperm whales is likely the greatest of any species on earth, and, consequently, sperm whales are likely to be more resilient to climate change than species with narrower habitat preferences.

Oil Spills and Contaminants: The threat of contaminants and pollutants to sperm whales and their habitat is highly uncertain and further study is necessary to assess the impacts of this threat. Little is known about the possible long-term and transgenerational effects of exposure to pollutants. Marine mammals are considered to be good indicators for concentrations of metal and pollutant accumulation in the environment due to their long lifespan and (in some cases) position near the top of marine food webs. [Source: NOAA]

Trying to Rescue a Sperm Whales

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Beached sperm whale
In 2003, a sperm whale female and her calf became entangled in a gill net off the coast of Mexico and were dramatically rescued by a diver who leaped in the water and cut them free with a knife. The tricky part was cutting strands of the net that became entangled in the whale’s teeth. At one point the diver accidently nicked by the mother whale’s tongue with his knife.

After that the diver said the whale panicked and slapped her pectoral fin hard against her body, creating a current that left the diver swirling in front of the whale’s jaws and then pushed the diver down with her head and spun her massive body in such a way that the diver became entangle in the net. The diver contemplated amputating his leg with a knife because he could not free himself and was losing air. Finally he became free when the net unraveled.

Studying Sperm Whales

In the past scientists often studied dead whales. Eric Wagner wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The ban on whaling “improved human-sperm whale relations but made the study of whales more difficult. Whaling gave scientists access to otherwise inaccessible subjects, but yielded reports that tended to emphasize the animal’s physiology and diet rather than behavior. One researcher speculated that based on the properties of oil at different temperatures, the spermaceti organ helped regulate buoyancy; others combed through the stomachs of dead whales, counting squid beaks to see which species they liked to eat. From a boat all one can see of a sperm whale is the tail and the broad slab of back and head that rides above the waves. Less than 10 percent of a whale’s body is visible, in a part of the ocean — the surface — where the animal spends less than 20 percent of its life. [Source: Eric Wagner, Smithsonian magazine, December 2011]

Sperm whale research now relies more on technology and an ability to think like a leviathan. “We have a very mysterious animal that we don’t understand,” Ian Whitehead of Dalhousie University.says. “Sperm whales live in an environment totally different from ours, one with completely different constraints. Where we are visual, they see the world through sound — both the sounds they hear and the sounds they make.”

The orange octagonal box in Kelly Benoit-Bird’s office at Oregon State University is an echo sounder transducer. At sea, it hangs under a boat and sends out waves of sound at four different frequencies. The time it takes each of the waves to return tells her how far away an object is; the waves’ intensity tells her the object’s size. Each organism has a different acoustic signature, and she can often figure out what sort of creature the waves are bouncing off of. To do so requires a certain interpretive knack.

“Acoustics is a great way to see what’s going on where you can’t see,” Benoit-Bird says. To understand sperm whale sound, she had to first establish how the whales use their clicks to find squid. Unlike fish, squid don’t have swim bladders, those hard, air-filled structures that echolocating hunters such as spinner dolphins and harbor porpoises typically key in on. “Everyone thought squid were lousy sonar targets,” she says. But she thought it unlikely that the whales would spend so much time and energy — diving hundreds or thousands of feet, clicking all the way down — only to grope blindly in the dark.

In a test, Benoit-Bird, Gilly and colleagues tethered a live jumbo squid a few feet under their boat to see if the echo sounders could detect it. They found that squid make fabulous acoustic targets. “They have plenty of hard structures for sonar to pick up,” she says. Toothy suckers cover their arms; the beak is hard and sharp; and the pen, a feather-shaped structure, supports the head. Benoit-Bird was thrilled. “You could say,” she says, “that I’m learning to see like a sperm whale.”

Image Sources: 1) Wikimedia Commons; 2) Institute of Cetacean Research, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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