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The Spectacular Sperm Whale

"Without a doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter, the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce." Thus Herman Melville described the sperm whale in his novel Moby Dick, the greatest work of literature inspired by the consuming interest in whales.

Melville was wrong about its size, but the spectacular sperm whale probably comes to mind when most people think of whales. It has been the chief prize of whalers for centuries, the subject of dramatic paintings of conflict between whale and whaler or giant squid, the source of valuable, mysterious ambergris. No wonder this species has particularly captured our imagination. Yet the sperm whale is not a legend, but a real beast, and still occurs in our waters despite long years of whaling. Males have been recorded as long as 60 feet (18m), though females usually grow only to 37 feet (11m). The sperm's huge head, filled with spermaceti oil, dwarfs the narrow long jaw, which alone bears impressive conical teeth. A single blowhole on the left side of its head blows forward and sideways; this alone is enough to identify a sperm whale at sea.

In summer, sperm whales occur offshore along the Pacific northwest coast from the Bering Sea southward. The females tend to stay farther south, the males leave the northern waters in the winter. Of three whales marked off California in January, one was recovered off Washington in June, and another in the Gulf of Alaska in April. Between 1905 and 1966, whalers took more than 5,000 up to 200 miles (321 km) offshore in British Columbia waters, mostly around the Queen Charlottes. Most were mature males up to 46 feet (14m). Each seemed to lead a school of up to thirty females and young. Occasionally sperm whales appear in inshore waters such as Dixon Entrance, Hecate Straight and Queen Charlotte Sound.

Studies of food show that Bering Sea sperm whale's stomachs may contain strange items: stones, rock, sand, a glass buoy, crabs, a coconut, deep sea sponge and cut flesh of a baleen whale. One sperm from California had a shoe in its stomach.

British Columbia specimens were reported to contain dogfish, ragfish, rockfish and skate, though the sperm's principle prey seems to be the squid Moroteuthis robustus, whose 4 foot (1.2m) body may have tentacles over 11 feet (3m) long.

The sperm dives deeply after its prey. Off British Columbia in 1932, an American cable-laying ship All America found a dead sperm tangled in a cable that had been at 3,330 feet (1,014m). Directional hydrophones have tracked much deeper dives elsewhere. On rare occasions, groups of sperm whales strand themselves, as at Florence, Oregon in June 1979.

Although many nations have stopped whaling, until recently Japan and Russia still hunted the sperm whale in the Pacific, taking a reported 7,000 each year. In its size and commercial importance the sperm resembles the few baleen whale species.