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The Sperm Whale

His legs trapped in the whale's mouth, Nye felt himself dragged under the sea .(Copyright Lee Krystek 1998)

March 1863: The long boat approached the sperm whale slowly. On board Peleg Nye, of Cape Cod, readied his bomb lance harpoon. Taking careful aim, he fired at the massive creature's blue-black skin. The animal struggled, then stopped. Thinking the whale was dead ,the crew of the boat pulled along side. Nye poked the creature with a hand lance.

Suddenly the creature slapped its gigantic tail and turned, grabbing the boat in its jaws. Nye fell forward into the sperm whale's mouth. In horror he felt his legs, just below the knees, clamped tight as if in a vice. His legs were caught in the gaps between the creature's peg-like lower teeth. Then the animal sounded, diving for the bottom of the sea and taking the helpless sailor with it. The world got dark and Nye lost consciousness.

On the surface, the remainder of the long boat's crew looked for Nye. They couldn't find him. Then the black mass of the whale rose to the surface. It was dead, finally killed by the action of the exploding lance. Floating up with it came Nye's body. His shipmates pulled him aboard and with difficulty, revived him. From then on, till he died at age 79, he was known as the "Jonah of Cape Cod."

The sperm whale, Physeter catodon, is the largest-toothed animal alive today. Some grow as large as sixty-two feet in length and weigh 50 tons. While larger whales, like the Blue, may filter small animals out of the water and consume them, the sperm whale is the largest animal that hunts and eats using its teeth.


A chunk of Ambergris found in a sperm whale's intestine.

Sperm whales live in the cold northern and southern waters of the world and are believed to never venture into equatorial seas. For that reason, the arctic and antarctic populations don't interbreed.

For many years the sperm whale was the source for many valuable commercial items. Spermacetirc oil, a waxy material found in the head of the animal, was used in making candles, cosmetic oils, and fine lubricants. Ambergris (right), found in the whale's intestine, was valued as a stabilizer in perfumes. Blubber, the fatty substance that insulates all whales from cold water, was an important source of oil.

Hunting sperm whales was a dangerous profession in the days before cannon-launched harpoons and motorized vessels. A small boat was lowered from the main ship and rowed quietly toward the whale. When close enough, a barbed harpoon was thrown into the whale's body. Sperm whales, enraged by an attack, have been known to turn on the boat, ram it with their heads, smash it, spill the crew out and crush the men in their powerful jaws.

Sperm whales, like all whales, have lungs and must come to the surface to breath (a whale spout is not water, but an exhale of warm, moist air that condenses in the colder sea air). They can submerge for as long as fifty minutes and dive as deep as 3,300 feet in search of food. Scientists suspect sperm whales hunt by using sound as a weapon. In the head of the whale is an organ called the spermaceti. The whale can use this as a kind of "sound lens" in order to focus an intense beam of sound energy on a specific target (like a squid, or a fish). The explosive "crack" sound is enough to stun or kill the animal. The sperm whale will then slurp the prey down whole and, in some cases, still alive.

A young sperm whale. (NOAA)

The sperm whale is believed to have only one natural enemy: the giant squid. It is questionable, though, if even the largest squid would risk attacking an adult sperm whale. Giant squid and sperm whales have been observed in mortal combat, but it is difficult to say who was the original aggressor. Typically the squid will try to strangle the whale with its tentacles as the whale tries to eat the squid whole.

Sperm whales were almost hunted to extinction by man, but a ban on whaling has allowed the animals to at least partly recover their numbers.

Man hasn't always gotten the best of the sperm whales as an incident from 1820 shows:

The whaling ship Essex was in the South Pacific on November 20th of that year. She was three months out of Nantucket Island and the voyage had so far been very successful. A thousand barrels of oil had been collected from whales already and the ship was half-filled. The crew was beginning to anticipate a quick trip home with high profits. They were very wrong.

By eight o'clock that morning spouts had been spotted on the horizon. The captain brought the Essex, a 238-ton ship to a stop and 18 of the crew took to three long boats to start the attack. The steward and cabin boy were left on board. The captain, George Pollard, took charge of one boat; the first mate, Owen Chase, took charge of the second; and the second mate, Matthew Joy, handled the final boat.


A sketch of the Essex and the whalemade in 1820.

Each boat rowed toward the school of sperm whales and picked out a target. Chase's boat attacked first. The boat carefully came in beside the prey. After the harpoon was thrown, the boat was turned quickly away to try and avoid the thrashing tail of the injured creature.

The whale unexpectedly changed course and its flukes hit the boat, knocking a hole in it. The crew let the whale go, and rowed back to the Essex to make repairs.

After hoisting the boat aboard, Chase noticed a large sperm whale had left the school and was lying off the bow of the ship. Chase was amazed when the animal suddenly started swimming toward the vessel at full speed. The whale struck the Essex with its head just behind the bow.

"The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock and trembled for a few minutes like a leaf," recalled Chase. "We looked at each other with perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech."

The whale had smashed through the bulkhead and the ship was leaking badly. Chase set the crew to work on the pumps and signaled the other boats to return immediately. The whale, meanwhile, had moved off some distance and was apparently badly injured. It was leaping and twisting in convulsions, beating the water around it to foam.

Then suddenly the animal was racing toward the ship again, its head high above the water like a battering ram. It hit, stoving in the port side of the ship. The Essex was doomed.

The whale disappeared, probably fatally wounded. The crew threw all the supplies it could into the remaining long boats and abandoned ship. A few minutes later the Essex rolled on its side.

The other two boats had successfully killed and secured two whales when they noticed that the ship had disappeared. Cutting the whales free, the boats rowed back to where they'd left the ship. The captain was speechless as Chase told him what had happened.

The situation was desperate. They were thousands of miles away from land in three light boats. The captain ordered that the masts of the ship be chopped away so they could right the vessel long enough to get some food off her. After salvaging everything they could, the boats headed east. Several of the crew starved during the trip. Two were left on Henderson Island, an isolated and barren piece of land, in order to raise the chances of the others surviving to reach civilization.

The boats got separated in a storm and on February 15th Chase's group was rescued by the ship Indian of London. Captain Pollard's boat reached the Island of Santa Maria off of Chile on February 23rd. The third boat disappeared and was never heard from again. A ship was sent to Henderson Island and the two crew left there were rescued on April 5th.

It is assumed the surviving crewmembers had learned a healthy respect for the power of the sperm whale.

Do an experiment that shows the power of sound.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1996,1998. All Rights Reserved.