The Sperm Whale
I know him not, and never will.
The Tail, Moby-Dick
In some medieval past, someone pierced the head of the whale, releasing the waxy oil that filled it. As it hit the cool northern air, this hot, precious liquid became cloudy, looking for all the world like semen. Thus men came to believe that the leviathan carried its seed in its head. It may be saddled with an inelegant, even improper name, but it is also an entirely apt title, for the sperm whale is the seminal whale: the whale before all others, the emperor of whales, his imperial cetacean majesty, a whale of inherent, regal power. It fulfils our every expectation of the whale. Think of a whale, and a sperm whale swims into your head. Ask a child to draw a whale, and he will trace out a sperm whale, riding high on the sea.
But the sperm whale also bears the legacy of our sins; an animal whose life came to be written only because it was taken; a whale so wreathed in superlatives and impossibilities that if no one had ever seen it, we would hardly believe that it existed --
and even then, we might not be too sure. Only such a creature could lend Melville's book its power: after all, Moby-Dick
could hardly have been written about a butterfly.
Scientifically, it is in a family of its own. Sperm whales -- classified Physeter macrocephalus
or 'big-headed blower' by Linnæus, the father of taxonomy, in 1758, but commonly called cachalots -- are the most ancient whales, the only remaining members of the Physeteridæ which evolved twenty-three million years ago and numbered twenty genera in the Pliocene and Miocene. (In fact, Linnæus at first identified four species: Physeter macrocephalus, P. catodon, P. microps
and P. tursio,
but all are now known as one, with the pygmy and dwarf sperms -- Kogia breviceps
and K. sima
-- recognized as a separate family, Kogiidæ.) Relics of prehistory, they are, in one scientist's words, 'victims of geologic time . . . held in the rubbery bindings of [their] own gigantic skin'. Their nearest relation on land is the hippopotamus, although with their grey wrinkledness, small eyes and ivory teeth, they remind me more of elephants.
The sperm whale remains a class apart. Its shape itself seems somehow informed, inchoate, as though something were missing -- a pair of flippers or a fin. It is an unlikely outline for any animal, still less for the world's largest predator. To Ishmael, the whale was the ominous embodiment of 'half-formed fetal suggestions of supernatural agencies'. Now it is seen as a 'generally benign and vulnerable creature'; from a fearful foe it has become a placid, gentle giant of the seas. The distance between these two notions is the distance between myth and reality, between legend and science, between human history and natural history. It is a mark of its magical nature - and a symbol of the fate of all cetaceans -- that the sperm whale has achieved such a transformation, from willful demon to fragile survivor.
may have been around for millennia, but we have really only known it for two hundred years; only with the advent of modern whaling, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, did man come to comprehend even an inkling
of the animal. It continues to confound us. The sperm whale is a greater carnivore than any dinosaur -- a fact that threatens to turn its fearsome jaws into those of an aquatic tyrannosaur -- although its body is ninety-seven per cent water, just as humans
are mostly made of the same liquid; we all contain oceans within us. Like other whales, the sperm whale never drinks. It has been described as a desert animal; like a camel living off its hump, its thick layer of blubber allows the whale to weather the vicissitudes
of the ocean, from feast to famine. In an environment in which food stocks alter drastically, there is an advantage in being able to live for three months without having to eat, and to be able to range over huge distances in temperatures ranging from tropical to Arctic.
Truly, these are global animals. Sperm whales live in every latitude and every ocean, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, even in the Mediterranean. Visual surveys from planes and ships have calculated that 360,000 of them still swim the
world's seas, although that is barely a quarter of the population that flourished before the age of the iron harpoon. Their love of deep water, foraging off steep continental shelves, meant that until recently only whalers - who described their quarry as traveling in veins, as if guided 'by some infallible instinct' ('say, rather, secret intelligence from the Deity', adds Ishmael) -- saw sperm whales alive. As a result their study is still in embryo. It is as though we have hardly advanced since nineteenth-century illustrators depicted overweight whales lying on palm-fringed tropical beaches.
What facts we do know cluster together like the whales themselves, defying interpretation. What color are they? Underwater, they appear ghostly grey filtered through the ocean's blue, but in sunlight they appear brown or even sleekly black, depending on their age and sex. They may even verge on a dandified purple or
lavender, with pale freckles scattered on their underbellies, leading to the pearly whiteness of the 'beautiful and chaste looking mouth! from floor to ceiling lined, or rather papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins'. From the side and below, this whiteness glows like a half-open fridge; an invitation, and a warning. The huge head is patchy and mottled where the tissue-thin skin is constantly peeling like old paint; it is relatively smooth, but behind, the rest of the body is furrowed and creased like a prune. This mutability gives the animal a metamorphic dimension.
From a hydrodynamic point of view, the sperm whale looks as though it were designed by an eccentric engineer. There are no concessions in its shape. Its sharp-angled flukes are not those of the sinuous and feminine humpback. It is a blunt blunderbuss
of an animal; abrupt, no-nonsense. Its squareness appears to confront the water, to defy, rather than comply with the sea. Yet seen from above, its block-like head is quite narrow, wedge-shaped: this is an animal built to spend most of its life in the depths, so much so that one scientist considers it more apt to call the sperm whale a surfacer rather than a diver. Its very size allows the whale to spend long periods of time in the depths, its body being one huge oxygen tank.
Slung beneath its signature snout is the sperm whale's other most formidable feature: its lower jaw, studded with forty or more teeth which fit into its toothless upper mandible like pins in an electrical socket. These ivory canines range in size from hen's egg to massive foot-long cones too broad for me to encircle in my fingers. Sliced in half, a tooth can reveal its owner's age by counting the layers of growth like the annular rings in a tree. In the most elderly whales, the teeth are 'much worn down, but undecayed; nor filled after our artificial fashion', Ishmael observes, although, in truth, sperm whales often suffer caries. In rare instances, they also possess unerupted upper teeth, relics of ancestors who boasted a full dentition. Natural selection has left their descendants with only a lower row, as if they had misplaced their dentures during the night. That fact makes the sperm whale seem more benign; only half a monster.
The teeth are yellowy in color; only when polished do they acquire their bright creamy whiteness, like the little ivory tusks in the carved ebony elephants my grandfather brought back from India after the First World War. Heavy in the hand, they are 69 tactile, smooth, weighty with their benthic provenance. For all their prominence, their function is oddly obscure. One nineteenth-century writer observed that the teeth were marked with oblique scratches, 'as though made with a coarse rasp', the result, he thought, of 'corals, crushed shells, or sand' and frequent contact with the ocean floor. However, food found in the bellies of sperm whales seldom shows any tooth marks. Juveniles are eating squid and fish long before they develop teeth, and females do not produce any until late in maturity, if at all. Evidently, teeth are not necessary for sustenance. (In some cetaceans they are a positive hindrance: strap-toothed beaked whales, Mesoplodon layardi,
have tusks which gradually grow over their jaws, creating
a muzzle through which they still manage to feed.)
In his Natural History of the Sperm Whale,
published in 1839, Thomas Beale noted that three hunted whales, one of which was blind, and the other two with deformed jaws, were in otherwise good condition, proving that not only did they not need their teeth to feed, they had no need of eyesight, either. This great predator does not chew its prey; rather, it sucks it in like a giant vacuum cleaner, as the presence of ventral pleats on its throat indicates. Some commentators have proposed that sperm whales use their jaws as giant lures, dangling them like an angler's rod and baited with bioluminescence from previous meals of squid. Beale believed that the whale hung passively in the water, waiting for its food, while squid 'actually throng around the mouth and throat', attracted as much by the 'peculiar and very strong odor of the sperm whale' as by the 'white dazzling appearance' of its jaw. However, modern science has discovered otherwise. Addressing the conundrum of the sperm whale's head, Ishmael points out to his otherwise ignorant readers that its true shape is in no way reflected by its skull; no one who saw its bones could ever guess that the living animal possessed such a snout. To him, this is further evidence of deception on a massive scale, and in a phrenological diagnosis - all but feeling the whale's bumps -- he declares that the huge forehead which lends the animal a semblance of wisdom 'is an entire delusion'. But Ishmael was himself misled, for the sperm whale boasts the biggest brain of any creature ever alive, weighing as much as nineteen pounds (as opposed to the human's seven). Quite what it does with such an organ is another matter.
Straddling a gallery to itself in New Bedford's museum is the skeleton of a sperm whale; merely to walk around it is an intimidating experience. The skull alone is more than twenty feet long and stands higher than my shoulders. It is an essentially asymmetrical structure by virtue of its left-leaning blowhole (odontocetes possess single nostrils, whereas mysticetes have two), literally sinister (and I wonder if whales are cack-handed like me). This same quality lends an air of abstract sculpture to the complex construction of caverns and sockets created to accommodate vital vessels and nerves. One opening connects its spinal cord to its brain, another to the ears and eyes, themselves protected by the bony mass from which swings its wishbone jaw, a toothed 'portcullis', hanging 'like a ship's jib-boom'. I cannot help but agree with Ishmael: this calcium scaffolding can hardly indicate the true shape of the animal. One might tell the form of a human being from its bones, but who could imagine the reality of this creature?
As in death the enigmatic sperm whale gives few of its secrets away, so in life it sees us from another angle. Its eyes are so positioned as to prevent the animal from seeing straight ahead (although their siting on its wedge-shaped head, at the point where it narrows down to the jaw, is such that a whale can see below itself in stereoscope - presumably a useful tactic in hunting -- and will swim upside-down to scrutinize objects above and, perhaps, to feed on them). For most of its life the whale must regard the world in two halves, Ishmael deduces; its head gets in the way, 'while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him'. It seems odd that such a powerful creature should be so benighted. This blindness is also the reason, says Ishmael, for the sperm whale's 'timidity and liability to queer frights'. A 'gallied' animal would sound deep into the ocean, beyond the reach of man and his harpoons.
In such a silent flight, the sperm whale could not be outdistanced. More than any other marine mammal, it is a master of the sea. Using its muscle-bound tail, it can power its way thousands of feet below, its paddle-shaped flippers tucked into its flanks as neatly as an aeroplane's undercarriage. And once below, it can stay down for up to two hours. To achieve this feat, a whale must spend much of its time breathing at the surface -- its 'spoutings out', as the sailors called them -- taking some sixty to seventy breaths in ten or eleven minutes.
. . . the Sperm Whale only breathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.
--The Fountain, Moby-Dick
Whereas humans inefficiently hold their breath to dive, whales supercharge their oxygen-carrying hemoglobin blood cells before sounding, often in exactly the same spot at which they
surfaced, perhaps to be sure of their survey of the food below. On these stately travels into the deep, they are accompanied by remora, sickly grey attendants suckered to their wrinkled flanks
like imps; 'fish, to be sure, but not quite proper fish', they are parasites lacking individual motion, dependent on their hosts without whom they would flop to the ocean floor. Even more
demonic are the lampreys, 'wriggling, yard-long, slimy brown creatures that repel even the zoologist'. These attach themselves to the whales with rasping mouths, leaving love-bite scars on their huge but helpless victims.
Commonly, a sperm whale will dive between three hundred and eight hundred meters, following a U-shaped trajectory. Once it has reached its chosen depth, it will swim horizontally for up to three kilometers, presumably foraging. Occasionally, the whale will dive even deeper. Dead sperm whales have been found entangled in underwater cables 1,134 meters down -- although that figure does not measure the drowning agony of the whale, its jaw caught in the insulated wire.
In 1884, a cable-repairing steamship operating off South America pulled up a cable in which a dying whale was trapped, its entrails spilling out; the wire itself was found to be bitten in six places. In another insight gained at mortal expense, a sperm whale caught south of Durban in South Africa in 1969 was found with the remains of two Scymodon sharks in its belly. Since such fish are bottom dwellers feeding at three thousand meters, this was proof of the whales' extraordinary diving abilities. Much of what we know about sperm whales was discovered by those whose primary interest was to kill them. Whales died that men might describe them.
Nor are they easily replenished. The sperm whale has the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal -- females produce single calves only once every four to six years. It is also the most sexually dimorphic cetacean: males may be twice the size of females. The sexes live apart for most of their lives, the males growing larger and all the more attractive to their potential, if fleeting, partners. This also has the benefit of maintaining the supremacy of their species: the vast distances they travel ensure that the global population of sperm whales is surprisingly genetically similar.
Moving south to breed, males fight for the females' favors. The distorted jaws -- some even tied in knots; Moby Dick's own mandible is described as sickle-shaped as it scythes off Ahab's leg - that Beale saw are evidence of these ferocious but short-lived battles, as are teeth marks on the animals' heads, backs and bellies. Although they have no territory to defend like rutting stags, whales will take bites out of each other's blubber, ramming one another with pugnacious foreheads which in males become almost obscenely extended.
Successful suitors mate belly to belly, with females underneath -- more hominum, in Ishmael's discreet words. Gestation lasts fifteen months; calves are nursed for at least two years, sometimes communally, and thirteen-year-olds have been known still to suckle. 'The milk is very sweet and rich,' says Ishmael; 'it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries.' Lacking lips, calves take the milk into the side of their mouths as it is squirted from their mothers' teats, a technique first identified by the surgeon Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar.
Sperm whales have the most complex social structure of any animal other than man. Like other toothed whales, they travel together, separated by sexual maturity into reproductive and bachelor groups. Females and immature whales swim together in groups of twenty to thirty, dispersed over a wide area; they prefer warmer waters, possibly because fewer killer whales - their only natural predators -- are found at such latitudes. Communal care confirms these extended bonds: when a mother dives for food, she will leave her calf -- which cannot yet follow her -- in the care of other females or juvenile males in a cetacean crèche. Large males have been seen gently carrying calves in their mouths, although the fact that they simultaneously exhibit extended penises probably means that this has more to do with mating than nursing.
In their teens and twenties, young males join bachelor groups, as though entering a rite of passage. They attain maturity at nineteen (females become sexually mature as early as seven
years old), but do not mate until their twenties. They travel further in search of prey; adult males roam more than forty degrees latitude north or south, forming loose concentrations spread over two hundred miles or more. Eventually these groups reduce in size until, in middle age, the males become solitary, roving as far as sub-polar seas to find new feeding grounds before
returning to warmer waters to mate.