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Sperm whale

Cachalots du St-Laurent

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Sperm whale

Facts about the Sperm whale

 Family: Physeteridae
Length: 11 to 18 metres
Weight: 15,000 to 50,000 kg

Lifespan: 50 to 70 years

  • Enormous box-shaped head
  • Dark grey or greyish brown body
  • Absence of dorsal fin
  • Small pectoral fins
  • Very wide caudal fin (tail)
  • Only one blowhole, on left side of head

The Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the largest toothed cetacean. Its head alone accounts for one third of total body length, and its tail can reach up to 4 metres in width. The sperm whale roams throughout the world’s oceans and seas and is found in deep waters that are ice-free. 

Champion diver

Cachalot

The Sperm whale generally does dives lasting about 30 minutes, but often stays underwater for over an hour. It can reach remarkable depths ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 metres. On returning to the surface, it breathes for three to ten minutes before diving again. Its blow can be heard up to a kilometre away. 

 

Spermaceti

Spermaceti (from which the whale derives its name) is an oily and fatty substance found in the sperm whale’s huge head. By varying in density depending on water temperature, this liquid blubber helps the whale adjust its buoyancy and sound its environment at great depths. 

Clickety click

Sperm whales produce clicking sounds unique to each individual. Clicking in rapid succession helps them locate prey, while brief clicking sounds are used for communication. These sounds, called coda, help individuals get their bearings and recognize each other. Sperm whales can communicate with their own kind even if they’re several kilometres away.

Group living

Females and their calves, along with juvenile males, form pods (groups) of between 10 and 50 individuals. These groups remain mostly in warm or temperate waters. The more solitary adult males form pods limited to a few individuals, and are far more inclined to visit polar regions.  

Sexual maturity

CachalotWhile the male reaches sexual maturity by the age of ten years, he cannot mate until about age 30. Mating season brings about violent confrontations between dominant males. Winners of these battles build up a harem consisting of 20 to 30 females.

A massive newborn

Following a 14 to 15 month gestation period, the female gives birth to a single calf, which she nurses for over a year. At birth, the “baby” sperm whale is already four metres long and weighs one ton. While it matures, the calf is protected by its mother and other females in the pod. Females give birth once every three to five years.  

Gargantuan appetite 

The sperm whale’s diet consists primarily of squid. Its enormous appetite requires about one ton of squid per day. It rounds out its diet by feeding on octopus, shellfish and fish. This great predator also attacks sharks.

Predation

The Sperm whale has few predators, including the orca (killer whale), which can attack the youngest calves or an adult in difficulty. Sperm whales also occasionally die after colliding with ships or becoming entangled in fishing nets. 

Victims of an intensive hunt

Cachalot

During the 18th and 19th centuries, sperm whales fell prey to an intensive hunt. A single sperm whale head could provide over 3,000 litres of oil used for lighting. The blubber was processed into industrial lubricant and the ambergris from its intestines was highly sought after by perfumers. It was also hunted for its meat. Commercial sperm whaling was banned in the 1980s.

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Links
Whales on-line Reference site and news dedicated to education for the conservation of whales in the St. Lawrence and their natural habitat.
Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS)
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