Sperm Whales In The Oceans

Sperm Whales In The Oceans

Sperm Whales In The Oceans

Courtesy of Lily Moy.

Channel swimmers along the California coast, between the Hawaiian islands, and elsewhere around the world, can hear and come across whales if they are lucky. Underwater, the swimmer can hear the whales’ clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls while the escort crews are occasionally treated to impressive sights of whales spouting, breaching, spyhopping, and tail-slapping.

High school swimmer Lily Moy from Gator Swim Club describes one of those whale species, “Sperm whales can best be distinguished from other species of whale by the distinct rounded hump protruding from their heads. For this, they are actually named after the bulge in their heads, known as spermaceti. Their heads are squarish in shape and make up about one third of their body length. They are dark grey in color, have wrinkled skin to increase surface area for heat loss, and their blowhole is located at the far front of their head. They are found in every ocean, but males tend to stay in cooler, deeper waters, whereas females prefer warmer and more shallow waters. In the US, it is most likely to see a sperm whale off of the coast of California.

Sperm whales have been hunted for years for the spermaceti oil in their heads, which these whales use for echolocation. Spermaceti has historically been used in fine lubrication, candles, and for fueling lamps. Whaling didn’t end until 1985, when the International Whaling Commission created a treaty that put an end to the killing of sperm whales. However, the damage still continues; large males were so heavily targeted that, to this day, the largest males are typically 20 meters long, when they were historically around longer.

Oil spills are problematic for sperm whales for many reasons. One is that any prey that they consume that is affected by the oil toxins will be transferred to the sperm whale, which can challenge reproduction. Another issue is that oil at the ocean’s surface will release toxic fumes into the air, which will then be breathed in by a Sperm Whale coming up for a breath.

There is a small population of sperm whales off of the Gulf of Mexico. They are considered to be a distinct group because they have been observed to use different calls than Sperm Whales that come from other populations. Unfortunately, this pod’s favorite hang out spots have also been made into platforms for oil drilling, put in place by oil companies who have been moving into deeper waters. This may pose a dilemma for sperm whales, whose use of sonar has been proven to be interrupted by the loud sounds used by the oil industry to detect oil deposits under the ocean floor.

These harmless, majestic creatures are no longer targeted by whalers, but are still listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. To make sure the population of sperm whales continues to rise, humans have to encourage whale-safe shipping practices, reducing risk of entanglement caused by ocean trash, and minimizing ocean noise.

For more information, visit Marine Mammal Center, Wildlife Guide, National Geographic, and NOAA.

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Steven Munatones