Sperm whales are easily recognized by their massive heads and prominent rounded foreheads. They have the largest brain of any creature known to have lived on Earth. Their heads also hold large quantities of a substance called spermaceti. Whalers once believed that the oily fluid was sperm, but scientists still do not understand the function of spermaceti. One common theory is that the fluid—which hardens to wax when cold—helps the whale alter its buoyancy so it can dive deep and rise again.

These whales are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) in search of squid to eat. These giant mammals must hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives. Sperm whales and giant squid may be mortal enemies. Many stories of deadly battles between these two massive animals exist, and sperm whales have even been seen with suction cup-shaped wounds and remnants of giant squid in their stomachs.

Sperm whales were mainstays of whaling’s 18th and 19th century heyday. A mythical albino sperm whale was immortalized in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, though Ahab’s nemesis was apparently based on a real animal whalers called Mocha Dick. The animals were targeted for oil and ambergris, a substance that forms around squid beaks in a whale’s stomach. Ambergris was (and remains) a very valuable substance once used in perfumes.

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This post is posted on Saturday 16 February 2013.
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Tagged as: ocean sea nature whales sperm whale animals zoology wildlife underwater marine mammals marine biology science
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