Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale



COMMON NAME: sperm whale, cachalot, black whale
KINGDOM: Animalia
PHYLUM: Chordata
CLASS: Mammalia
ORDER: Cetacea
SUBORDER: Odontoceti
FAMILY: Physeteridae
GENUS SPECIES: Physeter macrocephalus [formerly catadon]


DESCRIPTION: The sperm whale is a large, dark-colored, toothed whale with a massive, square-shaped head that can make up more than a third of its body length. It has a single blowhole that is set on the forehead and to the left, which produces a distinctive, angled blow.
SIZE: Maximum size approaches 20 m (65.6 ft.); males grow substantially larger than females
MALE 15.2 m (50 ft.)
FEMALE 10.7 m (35 ft.)
MALE 39,500 kg (87,000 lbs.)
FEMALE 12,200 kg (27,000 lbs.)
DIET: Predominantly squid; also occassionally feed on octopi, sharks and other fish species
GESTATION: 14-19 months
NURSING DURATION 2 or more years
MALE In their 20's
FEMALE Approximately 9 years of age
LIFE SPAN: 50-70 years
RANGE: All oceans - particularly between 40°N & 40°S. Adult males may venture beyond 50°N or S. Most frequent off South American and African coasts, waters of the North Atlantic, Arabian sea, waters between Australia and New Zealand, western North Pacific, and all along the equator (particularly in the Pacific).
HABITAT: Typically found in deep, offshore waters in excess of 600 m (1,968 ft.) with cold-water upwellings.
STATUS: IUCN Vulnerable (VU A1bd)
CITES Appendix I
USFWS Endangered


1. Sperm whales posess the most asymetrical skull of any mammal.
2. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any living animal - weighing up to 4.2 kg (9.2 lbs.).
3. Sperm whales have been sonar tracked in dives exceeding 2,250 m (1.4 miles). Analysis of stomach contents indicates that sperm whales are capable of diving beyond 3,000 m (1.9 miles).
4. The longest recorded dive for a sperm whale was in excess of two hours.
5. Sperm whales receive their common name for the massive spermaceti organ located in the forehead region. This organ can hold up to 1,900 liters (500 gal.) of wax-like oil. Opinions differ as to the purpose of the spermaceti. Some scientists believe that variations in oil density may assist the sperm whale in adjusting its bouyancy during dives. Other scientists believe that the oil is used as an accoustic aid in the process of echolocation.


Occasionally sperm whales will strand in large numbers.

There is at least one documented attack of killer whales on a sperm whale. Large sharks may also potentially prey on young sperm whales.

The sperm whale was commercially hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for its spermaceti oil, blubber (also for oil) and their meat.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 protects sperm whales in U.S. waters.


Byrum, J. A World beneath the Waves: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. SeaWorld Education Department Publication. San Diego. SeaWorld, Inc. 1998.

Jefferson, T.J. Leatherwood, S. and M.A. Webber. FAO Species Identification Guide. Marine Mammals of the World. Rome. FAO, 1993.

Leatherwood, Stephen, and Reeves, Randall R. The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983.

Nowak, Ronald M. (ed.). Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Reeves, R. R., Stewart, B.S., Clapman, P.J., and J.A. Powell (Peter Folkens illustrator). National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York: Random House, 2002.

IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group