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Episode 22: Captain Ahab Was a Real (Moby) Dick: We're Talkin' Sperm Whales

PART ONE: Preamble

Boy oh Boy, did I love Herman Melville as an undergrad. My final semester of undergrad, I took a course with a Professor named David Cody called “Melville and His World,” which is exactly the kind of 400-level seminar class that you’d expect an English Major to take in his last semester. We read a whole buttload of Melville, including many short stories and a few novels. Melville was a really interesting, smart, progressive, tortured person. He criticized capitalism, industrialization, slavery. His short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” is just as resonant today as it was in the 1850s. Whenever people try to make the boring claim that “people back then just didn’t know any better,” you can point to Melville and people like him, who were publicly making art that challenged the awful institutions of the time (and NOW). I could do an episode on Melville, but I won’t, because other, smarter people have probably done that. Who knows–maybe I can do a cheater’s guide to Melville in the future. WHATEVER.

The most famous Melville novel, Moby Dick, was the cornerstone of our course. It was, to be hackneyed, the White Whale of our studies. Elusive, gargantuan, dangerous, and all that other tired metaphor shit. I’m not going to say that you SHOULD read Moby Dick, because that is annoying, but if you were ever interested, just read the summary and ONE specific chapter. That is Chapter 32: Cetology. Of all the chapters in the many books I’ve read, this one stands out to me. It is randomly placed (it has nothing to do with the actual narrative–it’s an aside), informative, humorous, and singular. Out of nowhere, Melville launches into a discussion of the scientific study of whales.

The chapter begins with this: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod’s weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.”

Remember, this was 1850s America, so Melville’s science isn’t totally on-point. He has several paragraphs on whether a whale is a fish. Here’s a quote:

“First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.”

Melville says that the whale IS a fish, despite what Linnaeus thinks. Which is funny. The best part is his exhaustive categorization of the different types of whales. He breaks the whales into folios and chapters. He examines humpbacks (which he describes as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.”). He has an awesome paragraph on Killer whales, which he says Nantucketers know very little about (“The Killer is never hunted. I never heard what sort of oil he has. Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.”)

But of course, today’s episode is about the Sperm Whale, so let’s read some of Melville’s description of it:

“BOOK I. (Folio), CHAPTER I. (Sperm Whale).- He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained. All his peculiarities will, in many other places, be enlarged upon. It is chiefly with his name that I now have to do. Philologically considered, it is absurd. Some centuries ago, when the sperm whale was almost wholly unknown in his own proper individuality, and when his oil was only accidentally obtained from the stranded fish; in those days spermaceti, it would seem, was popularly supposed to be derived from a creature identical with the one then known in England as the Greenland or Right Whale [...] In those times, also, spermaceti was exceedingly scarce, not being used for light, but only as an ointment and medicament. It was only to be had from the druggists as you nowadays buy an ounce of rhubarb. When, as I opine, in the course of time, the true nature of spermaceti became known, its original name was still retained by the dealers; no doubt to enhance its value by a notion so strangely significant of its scarcity. And so the appellation must at last have come to be bestowed upon the whale from which this spermaceti was really derived.”

He examines the sperm whale through its economic value–the idea of the whale as a resource, because that’s what it was to New England whalers. He also says that he won’t talk too much about the peculiarities of the whale NOW, because the whole goddamn book is about a sperm whale. Here he speaks of the naming of the whale and how its very name is retained to indicate scarcity. Melville is critical of how industry exists to fool consumers, and how that industry devalues the life of the whale, a creature that he fears and respects despite his participation in the whaling industry.

Sperm whales were long considered a terrifying hunter. We see that in Moby Dick, sort of, though it’s important to note that the white whale wasn’t out looking for a fight–Ahab wanted that whale’s ass. In Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus fights a group of "cachalots" (sperm whales) to protect a pod of southern right whales from their attacks. Verne portrays them as being savage hunters ("nothing but mouth and teeth"). Shut up, Jules Verne. Sperm whales aren’t known to be regularly aggressive to humans or other whales. Sure, it has happened, but for the most part, sperm whales want to hunt squid and fish, not other mammals.

Listen up, folks, you know I love me some animal deep dives, and the Moby Dick chapter made me more whale-curious than I was before. Sure, we all love whales, but the sperm whale is particularly fascinating because it plays a role in who we were and who we are. I grew up in a state that got rich off the bodies of sperm whales. No joke. I remember this life-size sperm whale recreation at the children’s museum in West Hartford, CT. You could walk inside of it. It was scary but cool. How could an animal this big still exist?

There’s an important connection to my New England heritage and sperm whales. New England was the capital of American whaling. Places like New Bedford, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Newport, and New London were the epicenter of whaling in 1800s New England. Connecticut’s now-defunct, and only professional sports team, was the NHL’s Hartford Whalers. The sperm whale IS the Connecticut STATE ANIMAL. We loved whale-murder. Whales were hunted to near extinction by my people, and who knows if I had an ancestor or two on a whaling ship that killed and processed a sperm whale? Considering that sperm whale hunting was also important to the Azores, Portugal, where some of my descendents came from, it’s possible that I’m just a few generations removed from those who murdered sperm whales, the largest predator in the world.

What is your understanding of sperm whales, brother?

PART TWO: Gettin to know your local Sperm Whale

Before we dive into the actual facts, let’s look at the Google “people also asked” questions for “sperm whale” (some of these don’t have to do with sperm whales):

Sperm whales are incredible, brother. I want to hit you with some general sperm whale facts.


LengthWeightMale16 metres (52 ft)41 tonnes (45 short tons)Female11 metres (36 ft)14 tonnes (15 short tons)Newborn4 metres (13 ft)1 tonne (1.1 short tons)

-Males can get as big as 68 feet long.

-It is the third deepest diving mammal, (7,382 ft) exceeded only by the southern elephant seal and Cuvier's beaked whale.[6][7] Not to digress too much, but it’s wild that the southern elephant seal and Cuvier’s beaked whale dive so goddamn deep. To be clear, Cuvier’s beaked whale is not related to Dave Coulier, star of Full House, but it is the deepest diving mammal in the world. It has the longest and deepest recorded dive among whales at 9,816 feet (2,992 m) and 222 minutes. They don’t know why it dives so deep. And that blows my mind. Our planet is so dope.

-Sperm whales have the largest brain on Earth (17 lbs), more than five times heavier than a human's. It doesn’t have the biggest brain to body ratio, which some scientists believe is a better metric for intelligence, but I kinda call bullshit on that.

-The sperm whale's cerebrum is the largest in all mammalia, both in absolute and relative terms. The olfactory system is reduced, suggesting that the sperm whale has a poor sense of taste and smell. By contrast, the auditory system is enlarged. Their brains have spindle cells (which govern higher level thinking and emotion), which are the cells we always thought “make us human.” Not only that, they have more spindle cells and have had them for millions of years more. How much more do they know about how to live their lives?

-they eat about 2,000 lbs of food per day. They like lots of fish, but medium sized squid are their total faves.

-Sperm whales can live 70 years or more

-The sperm whale is also known as the "cachalot", which is thought to derive from the archaic French for 'tooth' or 'big teeth'. That term is preserved in other languages, like Russian.

-The sperm whale is among the most sexually dimorphic of all cetaceans. Mature males are typically 30% to 50% longer and three times as massive as females.

-Sperm whales don’t look like other whales. They are singularly weird looking in the whale world. They have huge domes. Their S-shaped blowhole is located very close to the front of the head and shifted to the whale's left.[40] This gives rise to a distinctive bushy, forward-angled spray. In contrast to the smooth skin of most large whales, its back skin is usually wrinkly and has been likened to a prune by whale-watching enthusiasts.[50] Albinos have been reported (LIKE MOBY DICK).

-They have a long and narrow lower jaw, and their lower teeth fit into sockets along the upper jaw. It’s very bizarre looking.

-Sperm whales are everywhere in the world! They migrate in all the oceans.

-They can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes, which is beneficial on their 2,000 meter deep hunts.

-Sperm whales produce clicks of 236 decibels (a motorcycle engine is 95 decibels). They are the loudest animal on the planet! They can blow out your eardrums or vibrate the human body to DEATH. It is believed that their clicks can travel to other sperm whales thousands of miles away.

-Their clicks are used for echolocation and communication, and their communication is possibly the most sophisticated form of language in the fucking WORLD.

-different cultural groups of sperm whales have different click patterns. It’s like their language/accent.

Part 3: Sperm Whale Commune

-Females babysit eachother’s young

-Males leave at about four years of age and live a mostly solitary life.

-The females in the pod groom eachother by massage. Rubbing their bodies against one another to remove dead skin and goddamn it just FEELS good.

-Birth is a social event, as the mother and calf need others to protect them from predators. The other adults may jostle and bite the newborn in its first hours.[183]

-”How they choose mates has not been definitively determined. Bulls will fight with each other over females, and males will mate with multiple females, making them polygynous, but they do not dominate the group as in a harem.[178][179] Bulls do not provide paternal care to their offspring but rather play a fatherly role to younger bulls to show dominance”

“Individuals rarely, if ever, join or leave a social unit. There is a huge variance in the size of social units. They are most commonly between six and nine individuals in size but can have more than twenty.[189]Females and calves spend about three-quarters of their time foraging and a quarter of their time socializing. Socializing usually takes place in the afternoon.[191]

-some of the most serene footage you’ll ever see is a sperm whale pod sleeping together in their pod formation. It looks like a bunch of alien ships suspended in space. It’s so fucking dope. You gotta youtube it, folks.

-shortest sleep cycle of any mammal on earth. They sleep UPRIGHT in pods for about 15 minutes at a pop, around 30 feet below the surface. They sleep in formation, but scientists don’t know exactly why. Because they need to eat so much, their brief POWER NAPS suffice.

Part 4: Sperm Whales as a Human Resource

Before Humans started murdering sperm whales en masse, they only had one predator, the orca. However, sperm whales developed survival tactics similar to how other herd animals defend against predators. They circled up and protected their young, pointing their huge tails outwards to push off the offending orcas. It’s called the “marguerite formation” because it looks like a flower.

Before white people started killing sperm whales, their hunting by humans was limited to indigenous Indonesian hunters.

HOWEVER–the MARKET made whales a big product. Sperm whales were the most lucrative because they contained SO MUCH spermaceti. What’s spermaceti?

Spermaceti (sperm oil), from which the whale derives its name, was a prime target of the whaling industry, and was sought after for use in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles. Ambergris, a solid waxy waste product sometimes present in its digestive system, is still highly valued as a fixative in perfumes, among other uses.”

Sperm whale heads can hold up to 1,900 liters of spermaceti

Sperm whales developed survival tactics to defeat the early whalers. They learned behavior from pod-to-pod, which researchers see as rapid cultural evolution. Pods legit learned from other pods. They communicated and learned how to flee from those old timey whaling ships through their language of clicks and echolocation.

HOWEVER–as modern industrial whaling ships developed, the sperm whales couldn’t outsmart the industry, and their numbers dropped dramatically:

“The hunting led to the near-extinction of large whales, including sperm whales, until bans on whale oil use were instituted in 1972. The International Whaling Commission gave the species full protection in 1985, but hunting by Japan in the northern Pacific Ocean continued until 1988.[236]

It is estimated that the historic worldwide population numbered 1,100,000 before commercial sperm whaling began in the early 18th century.[3] By 1880, it had declined by an estimated 29 percent.[3] From that date until 1946, the population appears to have partially recovered as whaling activity decreased, but after the Second World War, the population declined even further, to 33 per cent of the pre-whaling population.[citation needed] Between 184,000 and 236,000 sperm whales were killed by the various whaling nations in the 19th century,[240] while in the 20th century, at least 770,000 were taken, the majority between 1946 and 1980.[241]

We think of whaling as this old timey thing, but sperm whale hunting didn’t stop in full until 1988! That’s our lifetime, brother! It’s also wild that most of the whales ever killed were murdered between 1946-1980.

“Currently, entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships represent the greatest threats to the sperm whale population.[10] Other threats include ingestion of marine debris, ocean noise, and chemical pollution.[244] The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) regards the sperm whale as being "vulnerable".[3] The species is listed as endangered on the United States Endangered Species Act.[245]

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