Sperm Whale Sperm Whale
Sperm Whale

Scientific Classification

Common Name
sperm whale, cachalot, black whale, pot whale
Cetacea; more recently Cetartiodactyla
Genus Species
Physeter macrocephalus [formerly catadon]

Fast Facts

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.
Maximum size approaches 20 m (65.6 ft.); mature males have three times the mass of mature females.
Male: 16 m (52 ft.)
Female:  12.3 m (40 ft.)
Male: 39,500 kg (87,000 lbs.)
Female: 12,200 kg (27,000 lbs.)
Predominantly deep-water squid; also occasionally feed on octopi, sharks, and other fish species
14 to 16 months; can produce a calf every 5 to 7 years); calf is about 13 feet in length.
Nursing Duration
2 years and may continue to nurse for several years
Sexual Maturity
Males:  Sexually mature as early 10 to 20 years but may not be involved in breeding until their late 20’s
Females: Approximately 9 years of age and 29 feet in length
Life Span
60 years
The sperm whale has a large geographic range. It can be seen in nearly all marine regions, from the equator to high latitudes, but is generally found in continental slope or deeper water. The distribution extends inside many enclosed or partially-enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, Gulf of California, and Gulf of Mexico.
The habitat of the sperm whale is the open sea. More specifically, Sperm whales can be found in almost all marine waters deeper than 1,000 m that are not covered by ice, except in the Black Sea and possibly the Red Sea. They tend to be more frequent around cold-water upwellings.
Global: Sperm whales have been listed as vulnerable since 1996.
IUCN: Vulnerable
CITES: Appendix I
USFWS: Endangered

Fun Facts

  1. Sperm whales possess the most asymmetrical 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 mi.). 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 2 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.

Ecology and Conservation

Occasionally sperm whales will strand in large numbers.

There are documented attacks of killer whales on sperm whales. 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 meat.

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

The only recent quantitative analysis of sperm whale population trends suggests that a pre-whaling global population of about 1,100,000 has been reduced by 67% due to whaling activities.

The International Whaling Commission manages sperm whale populations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, and Schedule of the Convention lists Sperm Whale seasons, sperm whale size limits and sperm whale catch limits. However, no specific plan for managing Sperm Whale populations is in place. Moreover, many range states are not members of the International Whaling Commission.


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


Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman, R.L. 2008. Physeter macrocephalus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T41755A10554884. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T41755A10554884.en. Downloaded on 24 September 2018.

NOAA Fisheries – Sperm Whale Profile. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/sperm-whale/. Downloaded on 24 September 2018.