June 11, 2020

A Closer Look at the Magnificent, Mysterious Sperm Whale

The loudest animal on earth also has the largest brain

Adapted from a photo by Shane Gross, ShutterstockAdapted from a photo by Shane Gross, Shutterstock

It is in our nature to be anthropocentric—to believe that everything revolves around human beings and our needs.

When we consider what sets us apart, we think of things like culture and traditions, the importance of family, a sense of self, and the ability to reason and introspect. We consider that our large brains grant us a position of superiority.

I assume it would bother people who think this way to learn that we are far from unique in these respects. In fact, I hope to bother them today with a brief discussion of one of the animal kingdom’s most intelligent, mysterious, and impressive denizens: the sperm whale.

Most people who have heard of sperm whales think of them either as squid-hunting monsters with a strange name, or as the inspiration for Moby Dick.

They do not, I expect, think of them as social, sensitive creatures that form strong family ties and speak to each other over vast distances using differing dialects.

They do not realize that sperm whales have the largest brains of any animal that has ever lived—six times larger than our own. That those brains feature huge neocortexes (the centre of language and cognitive processing) as well as an abundance of spindle neuron cells (associated with communication and empathy).

They do not consider that sperm whales don’t just have these sophisticated brain structures, but that they’ve had them for 15 million years longer than we have.

From a fantastic feature in Outside Magazine:

They live in extended family groups: grandmothers, mothers, aunties, kids. Males leave in their teens to roam the oceans, visiting other groups only to mate, but females remain for life. Each group has its own traditions of hunting and socializing, much like human families. They communicate with their sonic clicks, staying in touch across oceans through what I’ve come to think of as the Whale Wide Web. There are several hundred sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean, and scientists ­believe they all belong to one of two clans. Each speaks its own dialect of codas—click combinations that sound like Morse code and are passed down to offspring. Individual whales even have their own variations of a coda—­almost like their name—which they broadcast while socializing. They like to be together. They sleep in clusters, hanging vertically beneath the surface like a grove of sequoias. They babysit and even nurse one another’s calves. Between hunts they hang out at the surface, coasting in parallel, banking oxygen for the next dive and catching up on the latest clicks. During their brief idylls, these giants can be surprisingly approachable. Like dolphins, they’re sometimes curious about humans.

As is almost always the case, being curious about humans tends to end poorly for animals, a lesson that sperm whales learned the hard way.

Their distinctive large heads contain a waxy substance called spermaceti that served as a cornerstone of the industrial revolution, used for everything from cosmetics to the lubrication of machinery and the fuelling of lighthouses. Between spermaceti, ambergris (another useful substance harvested from their digestive system), and their ivory-like teeth, sperm whales proved irresistible.

This appeal led to catastrophic whaling that decimated the global population.

Their ferocious reputation was earned during these decades of genocide, where individuals defended themselves against our onslaught as best they could. The inspiration for Moby Dick was the sinking of the whaling ship, Essex, by a massive sperm whale.

The crew of twenty apparently picked the wrong animal to hunt when they pushed their vessel in pursuit of an 85-foot giant. The large bull rammed the ship hard enough to knock everyone off their feet before circling back and charging at full speed, hammering into it hard enough to push the 238-ton ship back and sink it.

Only 8 of the crew survived.

Sperm whales, unlike most of our whaling targets, are not plankton-feeders. They’re formidable hunters themselves, plunging thousands of feet into the ocean’s depths to grapple with giant squid, returning to the surface for a breath an hour later, often bearing the scars of their encounters.

But they don’t need their 8-inch teeth or massive bulk to intimidate us.

Sperm whales are capable of producing some of the loudest sounds ever recorded. The echolocation clicks of a large sperm whale are louder than a rock concert or a commercial airliner, louder than a fighter jet or a gun shot.

Loud enough to kill a human being.

And yet, divers who swim with them report a heartwarming degree of restraint on the part of the whales. Many encounters include a series of exploratory sonar clicks as the massive creatures scan” us.

They could effortlessly deafen, stun, or disable us with their sonar…but they don’t.

With a half-spin, the Stranger twists her giant body with exquisite grace, careful not to smack any of us with her ten-foot flukes. She goes vertical and opens her mouth. Her teeth are the size of a T. rex’s, and Gaelin is practically in her mouth already, photographing scars left from battles with monster squid. It should be terrifying—would have been for Melville—but it’s abundantly clear that she’s going out of her way not to hurt us. In fact, I couldn’t find a single recorded incident of a sperm whale attacking a person who wasn’t trying to harpoon it. The Stranger pirouettes again, and the water fills with rapid-fire clicks, as if someone is waving a Geiger counter around my head. She’s scanning us. She can probably see our bones. Can probably tell what we had for breakfast. Can conceivably discern if we’re scared or elated. I find myself wondering if she recognizes Pernell from other encounters. If she knows that Stacy and Gaelin are mother and daughter.

With stomachs full of our plastic, bodies entangled by our nets, brains scrambled by the din of our ships, these giants still default to peaceful curiosity when faced with their greatest threat.

Eventually, the Stranger’s three-inch eye falls upon me, and again I feel that surge of primal fervor. I also feel humbled and privileged, like I’m being granted a gift I don’t deserve. But it’s not a warm and fuzzy moment. In fact, it’s deeply unsettling. Does she know that we are the ones that put the plastic in the oceans? That drive the boats that ran her kind down? That we’re the descendants of the creatures that turned her ancestors into candles and engine grease? Honestly, I have no idea. I sense nothing beyond profound intelligence and profound otherness. From three feet away, I feel the chasm between us, and I think she does, too. Why are you here? I want to ask. And from across the chasm, the question echoes back.


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