“Sperm whale brings light to mankind, and mankind brings its a disaster”

“Sperm whale brings light to mankind, and mankind brings its a disaster”

The untold story of spermaceti oil

The sperm whale is graceful. Melville wrote: “No creature can define the beauty of lines more delicately than the half-moon outlines on these tail fins.”

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, London was drowning in deep darkness on the eve of prosperity. London’s darkness is not solely a metaphor but also literally – the streets at night lack light, thefts are rampant and violent crime endlessly emerges. Walking in the city at night is an extremely unwise choice.

In 1736, the City of London government began installing and operating streetlights throughout the city. This type of street light is called the parish oil lamp and is lit from sunset to sunrise. In just a few years, nighttime crimes are drastically reduced. The light that illuminates the dark city come from the colony near the sea.

 First industrial revolution in London on the era of the eighteenth century.
London on the eve of the first industrial revolution. (Image source: clevelandart.org)

The protagonist who brings light

Nantucket (Nantucket: the old translation of the South Pacific), the whaling center of the North American colony, began gradually in the mid-seventeenth century and flourished due to increasing demand for whaling products in the eighteenth century.

At first, the whale oil that lights up the city came mainly from Right whales. By the 1820s and 1940s, whales in New England’s coastal waters became scarce. At the same time, the technology of using sperm whale products to make high-end candles has matured, and the colony’s whalers have new goals.

In 1748, an advertisement in Boston related to sperm whale products:

“Spermaceti oil candles … scented; longer-lasting, more than twice as long as animal fat candles; wide light range, four times that of other candles, the light is uniform and soft, making the scene clearer … “

Regular whale oil (subcutaneous fat) has a pungent odor and is typically used for lighting in open spaces (such as streets). Candles made from sperm whale spermaceti oil have excellent performance. Although production was limited, the wealthy classes in the colonies and in Europe are willing to pay more for it.

Spermaceti oil Candles used in eighteenth century
Spermaceti oil Candles (Image source: worthpoint.com)

Profits drive Nantucket’s whaling ships across both oceans. In 1851, a novel about the whaling industry in Nantucket was published. The book was boring and boring, with a dark and tragic style. At that time, sales were gloomy and there were few readers. It wasn’t until the 1920s that this “Moby-Dick or Sperm Whale” was rediscovered. Today, it is considered one of the greatest novels in the history of American literature.

Moby Dick

According to the book, Moby Dick is a male sperm whale. It is inevitable for Melville to choose sperm whales as the protagonist, as sperm whales (especially male whales) are the fiercest prey whalers can encounter and are the only whale known to have sunk whalers. More importantly, the sperm whale itself is a magnificent and magnificent animal, enough to serve as the protagonist of a masterpiece.

Moby Dick attacks the ship
Moby Dick attacks the ship (Picture credit: Augustus Burnham Shute (1892)

Story of sperm whale from beginning to end

The sperm whale shows its body lines.
The sperm whale shows its body lines (Picture by: Rajitha Dissanayake)

The sperm whale has several extremes:

It is the largest toothed whale in existence. The female whale is around 12 meters long and weighs around 15 tons. The male whale is much larger, about 18 meters long, and weighs about 45 tons. The sperm whale’s skull and brain (7.8 kg) are the largest among mammals. Sperm whales can dive to a depth of 2,250 meters in 90 minutes and approaching the second maximum of almost mammalian limit.

New research findings:

Most extreme diving mammals
Picture credit : © BBC earth

Researchers have long discovered for a long time that the Curvier’s beaked whale created the deep-diving limit among the marine mammals other than the sperm whale. According to data measured in Southern California from 2010 to 2012 and published in 2014, Curvier’s beaked whale can reach 2992 meters for 2 hours 17 and a half minutes (not at the same time).

However, a research team from Duke University collected data from 2014 to 2018 found that the single dive time for two of Cuvier’s beaked whales was 2 hours 53 minutes, and 3 hours 42 minutes (published on September 23, 2020). These findings broke again the previous time recorded at the same depth mentioned above.

Five deepest diving marine mammals
Picture credit : © BBC earth

Taxonomically sperm whale is alone

The sperm whale superfamily evolved from the Oligocene epoch into large and small members. They occupied various niches and gave birth to giant whales such as Livyata melvillei. Twenty million years have passed, and the vicissitudes of life have changed. Only the sperm whale lives in the genus Physeter. Three of the extant species in the genus Kogia such as the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) and the dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima) of the old family of sperm whale have survived alone.

A small pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) stranded
A stranded small pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps)

The genus name “Physeter” of the sperm whale literally means “jet” in Greek, and the species name “microcephalus” means “huge head.” The name is extremely appropriate because the length of the sperm whale’s head accounts for almost one-third of its body length.

A huge shovel-shaped skull wraps around a huge head. Sperm whale stacks the conical-shaped organs on top of its head which placed above the shovel pit. The upper part is the spermaceti organ, whale spermaceti oil fills the outer wall of the fiber cavity in the spermaceti organ. The whaling industry refers to the Melon as “junk.”Connective tissue contains in the divided chambers of the Melon, and it also contains a small amount of solid spermaceti oil.


The main commercial value of sperm whales comes from one to three tons of whale spermaceti oil. This is a high-grade wax ester (mainly cetyl palmitate). At the body temperature of a whale, it is a translucent and slightly yellowish liquid. Once it spilled on the cold deck, it will solidify into the Milky white wax block. This may be the source of the English name of the sperm whale.

Whale spermaceti oil
Whale spermaceti oil (white solid, yellow liquid) and candles made from it (Image credit: © Genevieve Anderson)

Function of spermaceti oil

There are many speculations about the function of the whale spermaceti oil. Some people say that it is a pressure regulator for deep diving, some people say it is a buffer device for head hammer impact, and some people guess that it is part of the acoustic equipment of the whale spermaceti organ. Spermaceti organ based on the acoustic properties of whale spermaceti oil. Such a conjecture is not unreasonable.

The left and right nasal passages of sperm whales are severely asymmetric. The left nasal passage bypasses the left side of the spermaceti organ and leads to the top of the head, and the right nasal passage closely fits between the spermaceti organ and the junk, leads to an airbag, and then merges with the left nasal passage to the jet hole. This structure cannot make people fail to connect this huge head with the singing of the sperm whale.

Schematic diagram of the head anatomy of a sperm whale
Schematic diagram of the head anatomy of a sperm whale (Image credit : © Kurzon/wikimedia)

Perhaps the huge spermaceti organ takes up too much space, and the role of the sperm whale is deflected to the left along the left nasal passage. Therefore, the water column exhaled by the sperm whale is also inclined to the left and front, which is very easy to recognize on the vast ocean.

blow
Sperm whale pod off Mirissa, in Southern Sri Lanka in 2019 (Blowing, logging, surfacing and sweeping its tail) (Pictures by Rajitha Dissanayake)

Together forever?

In the deepwater where sperm whales are active, a series of intertwined clicks echoed by them. Steady and regular clicks are used for echolocation. Another type of irregular clicks with rapid changes is called coda (originally means in music is the passage that ends a piece) and is considered to be used for communication between whales.

Large groups of sperm whales scattered in the sea within a range of several kilometers. The continuous clicks of each other are intertwined and overlapped. Consistent clicks make up the ensemble, and it is not easy to distinguish how many individuals are in it, let alone judge the inherent characteristics of this ensemble.

The sperm whale click (Audio: Jim Nollman)

Michel André, who specializes in the acoustic research of sperm whales, was struggling to find a suitable method to process sperm whale recordings in the Canary Islands waters because there are too many messy sounds overlapping. Senegal’s drum master Arona N’Daye Rose helped the research team solve this problem.

The whale song of the sperm whale is like a drum ensemble composed of many drummers using the same instrument with their own rhythm. From the ensemble of sperm whales, the musicians judged the voice lines of each whale and the conversation style of the whales and with the help of these musicians, follow-up studies confirmed that each sperm whale has a unique code. It’s like a fingerprint that varies from person to person.

sperm whale is farting
The sperm whale farting (Image: © Wade & Robyn Hughes)

Acoustic power

The whalers may not know the secret of coda, but the clicking sound of the sperm whale must have entered the dreamland of a sailor. The sound of the sperm whale is strong and powerful, louder than the singing of any other animal.

They hummed a strong song of 230 decibels and stirred the water in the twilight zone into a lively atmosphere. The noisy sperm whales will make approaching divers feel that their internal organs are shaking. The whalers can even hear this clicking sound coming through the sea, like someone hitting the bottom of a boat with a hammer.


For whalers, this sound is neither beautiful nor romantic. On the contrary, it is a horn that announces the beginning of the battle and which sometimes carries the death knell. There were many legends about the killing and swallowing of sailors by sperm whales, the most dreaded thing about sperm whales is their sturdy and powerful tail. A whaler with lingering fears noted: “The sperm whale’s tail is almost as hard as iron and more flexible than steel. It swings with a thousand horsepower. It is the most feared weapon of fragile humans on a broken wooden ship in the sea… “

 The tail hammer is not an exclusive treatment for humans. Sperm whales will form a circle, forming a defensive formation with the head in and the tail facing out. However, flocks of female sperm whales and cubs live in warm waters; adult males tend to be alone and swim to polar waters during the non-breeding season
The tail hammer is not an exclusive treatment for humans. Sperm whales will form a circle, forming a defensive formation with the head in and the tail facing out. However, flocks of female sperm whales and cubs live in warm waters; adult males tend to be alone and swim to polar waters during the non-breeding season. Image: © Phoenix_PNX / Wikimedia

The fight between giants is a legend

It is truly unreasonable to be swallowed by a sperm whale, probably because fangs and big mouths have given sailors the materials they need to make up some stories. Sperm whales do not have teeth in the upper jaw (sometimes there are teeth in the upper jaw). There are 40 to 52 slightly curved canines arranged on the lower jaw. The largest teeth are 25 cm long and weigh around 1 kg.

Caption: Sperm whales have no teeth in the upper jaw, only alveolar, and the lower jaw is very narrow and long. The picture shows the stranded sperm whale created by the artist.
Caption: Sperm whales have no teeth in the upper jaw, only alveolar, and the lower jaw is very narrow and long. The picture shows the stranded sperm whale created by the artist (Picture source: © Julian Ilcheff Borissoff).

Based on the engorged teeth of sperm whales and the huge scars on their skin, people imagined many strange stories of sperm whales fighting with giant squids. In fact, the exaggerated scars are just old wounds that grow up with the growth of the whale, or the result of similar fights.


The main food of sperm whales is indeed large cephalopods such as Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni and Architeuthis dux (as well as some deep-sea fish). Although these large squids can grow to hundreds of kilograms, they are still not enough to rival the sperm whale. The scene where the sperm whales fight against the big squid and fight each other 50-50 only exists in fictional works.

The teeth of the sperm whale and the ear strips attached to it are barnacles.
The teeth of the sperm whale and the ear strips attached to it are barnacles (Picture credit: Meow Fish Sauce).
Sperm whales fighting with big squids is a legend after all
Sperm whales fighting with big squids is a legend after all. (Image source: wellcomecollection.org)

The predation of sperm whales is usually done by sucking. The teeth are more like weapons of similar fighting. Some female whales do not even have teeth.

This kind of teeth from the largest toothed whale performed more functions in the hands of whalers. Sailors pioneered the art of carving and painting on whale teeth in the boring life of sailing. They carved characters in landscape paintings and they wrote poems. The most popular subjects are whaling and sailing life. The carving tools are hand-picked production tools.

Finally, soot and charcoal are used to color the grooves. Simple artworks are born in the dilapidated cabin. Such works of art appear in nautical cultures all over the world. American whalers certainly pushed up their whale tooth carving industry to the top in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sperm whale tooth carving, resin imitation, purchased from Grytviken, South Georgia
Sperm whale tooth carving, resin imitation, purchased from Grytviken, South Georgia. (Picture credit: © Capt.Z)

Perpetuated light

The discovery and application of spermaceti oil in the 19th century did not save sperm whales. The ensuing industrial revolution has increased more demands for sperm whales. People discovered that whale spermaceti oil not only for lighting purposes but also as a good lubricant raw material. The commercial killing of sperm whales did not stop until 1988. The estimated sperm whales in the world before the whaling era were about 1.1 million. Today, the number is 360,000.


However, compared with the endangered large baleen whale’s populations that have not recovered so far (such as the blue whale and the northern right whales), the fate of sperm whales is already great. This may be due to the huge biomass of pelagic large and medium-sized cephalopods and the wide eating habits of sperm whales.

The amount of biomass that all sperm whales prey each year is equivalent to the total catch of humans, but there are fewer types of overlapping prey between the two. Sperm whales dive every day on the continental slope and the edge of the shelf to hunt for food, bringing the energy and matter of the semi-deep ocean to the light-transmitting zone of the ocean surface, greatly accelerating the energy flow in the vertical direction of modern ocean waters.

One of the prey of sperm whales in the Antarctic waters
One of the prey of sperm whales in the Antarctic waters: Dissostichus eleginoides. (Picture source: © Capt.Z)

The same energy lit up the candles in countless gorgeous mansions two hundred years ago. Today, the sperm whale candle is out of print, and the only remaining whale spermaceti oil candle in the museum has been carefully sealed.

No one will ever see this fragrance, clean, bright, and soft light. Of course, we can still get a glimpse of this kind of candle from the physics book:

The basic unit of the International System of Units defines seven basic physical units. The light intensity unit “Candela” is defined as a monochromatic radiation source with a frequency of 540.0154*10^12 Hz has a radiation intensity of 1/683 W/ Luminous intensity at star.

Conclusion

Sperm whales sound jerky and incomprehensible, but Candela is exactly the Latin word for candle. This unit is actually a description of a standard spermaceti oil candle. In this way, the physical unit of the sperm whale annotation has permanently entered our basic science. As long as modern civilization continues, the physical concept determined by the sperm whale will eventually accompany us to the sea of ​​stars. Until that day, when the people in the spacecraft are sailing in the silent universe, will they think of the clicking sound coming from the bottom of the ship in the heavy ocean waves?

Related stories :

https://scubadiverlife.com/top-five-deepest-diving-animals/

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-06-29/why-oil-didnt-save-the-whales-and-why-it-matters/

More readings :

https://aquaticmammal.blogspot.com/2020/09/will-whale-poop-save-planet-what-is.html

http://oceanfacts.net/musician-hiding-in-the-sea-part-1/

References :

Møhl, B. Sound transmission in the nose of the sperm whale Physeter catodon. A post mortem study. J Comp Physiol A 187335–340 (2001). 

Caruso, F., Sciacca, V., Bellia, G., De Domenico, E., Larosa, G., Papale, E., Pellegrino, C., Pulvirenti, S., Riccobene, G., Simeone, F. and Speziale, F., 2015. Size distribution of sperm whales acoustically identified during long term deep-sea monitoring in the Ionian Sea. PLoS One10(12), p.e0144503.

Photo and video source credit :

The videos and pictures in this article refer to BBC earthclevelandart.orgAugustus Burnham Shute (1892)Wade & Robyn Hughes, Kurzon/Wikimedia, and You-Tube.

Rajitha Dissanayake

Researcher in the field of Marine Mammals and Bio-acoustic

I'm a Master’s student in marine mammals and bio-acoustic laboratory, Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and focusing on the sustainable environmental application, conservation, and exploring all aspects of the ecology and behavior of marine mammals.

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