Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

We’re starting off Cetacean Saturday with my all-time favorite: the sperm whale. I became fascinated by these creatures when I read “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which details the destruction of a whale ship from Nantucket by an enraged sperm whale (later inspiring Herman Melville’s infamous Moby Dick).

Sperm whales are astounding creatures of the sea. Their skull makes up 1/3 of their entire body, with much of their brain case filled with spermacetti, an oily fluid once mistaken by whalers for sperm (hence the name); scientists today are still unsure of this fluid’s purpose. These whales can dive to extreme depths (1000 meters) and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes (say whaaaat?). They’re also bigger than the average school bus.

Sperm whales are listed as “vunerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, due to overhunting. However, their conservation is better than most other cetacean species, as hunting of these animals has completely stopped and they are a protected species around the globe. The biggest threat to these creatures is being caught in fishing nets, and colliding with ships (on top of humanity’s ever-increasing disturbance of the oceans via noise pollution, oil spills, and trash).

I think one of my favorite pop culture references to the sperm whale comes from John Hodgman’s Netflix special RAGNAROK. He starts discussing the sperm whale, and describes it as the only whale that actually LOOKS like a whale. It’s so true! Any kid can draw a sperm whale. You see a sperm whale outline on a plate or a piece of scrimshaw and immediately say, “oh, that’s a whale.” I can’t do his description justice, so I would recommend you go check it out.

This specimen in the photo is hanging at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. While I will go in today to find the specimen number, it should be known that there are 16 sperm whale specimens (not counting the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales) that can be found in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s database. But hopefully I can find the record for this beauty today or tomorrow!

Sources:
Sperm Whales – National Geographic.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.

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