Monday, February 14, 2011

The Pursuit for the Sperm Whale; the Great Legend of Moby Dick

Sperm Whale Fluke in Afternoon; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

If you absorbed some previous information from “My Favorite Bostonian Cetaceans; Dive into a World Different from Our Own,” then you would know that whales are simply phenomenal creatures that inhabit all oceans of the world. Within this particular project on the Viking Vision I was not searching for just any whale - I was longing to see the Sperm whale in its own natural habitat. Why the Sperm whale you may ask? The Sperm whale was worldly hunted in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century by whalers. We have all heard of Moby Dick (more on this later), like Moby Dick these Sperm whales were mainly chased for their spermaceti, which was obtained primarily from the spermaceti organ, and sperm oil, which was acquired primarily from the blubber in the body. Why are these Sperm whales being hunted for the spermaceti and sperm oil you may ask? These specific ingredients are used in our daily commercial applications, such as candles, soap, cosmetics, machine oil, other specialized lubricants, lamp oil, pencils, crayons, leather waterproofing, rust-proofing materials and many pharmaceutical compounds.

As I researched the Sperm whale before I arrived on the Viking Vision, I honestly had no idea that the candles I was burning in my condominium and the soap that I used earlier that day could have been remnants of Sperm whales! I was disgusted! I looked for the components in my candles and soap; this did not help at all! I was tempted to email these particular companies “Yankee Candle” and “Aveeno,” but I was determined to find this information online.   

While researching the substance in Yankee Candles, I discovered that the spermaceti had no odor when burned and it did not soften from the heat of the summer months – main reasons why individuals in the late 18th century bought candles that comprised of spermaceti. The more ambient and eco-friendly candles to date are beeswax, soy, and vegetable-based candles – these are offered in a myriad of colors, shapes, designs, and fragrances. I did not find a great deal of information about Yankee Candles, but I did come across a really interesting website that specialized in the creation of their very own soy candles. A few key factors that stood out about this Hawaiian based company were that they made their own candles from natural vegetable soy wax in the courtesy of their own kitchen! The couples main scents were derived from the Hawaiian hillsides and valleys mixed with tropical scents of the Pacific Islands - Aloha Soy Candle Company. I recommend reading their “About Us” section, “especially the very bottom of the page that is labeled Natural Alternative.

After reading more about Sperm whales and anxiously awaiting my first real sighting of a Sperm whale, one thing was for certain I was on the pursuit to find the Sperm whale. Unlike the whalers, I was not “hunting” the Sperm whale – I was simply admiring its beauty for afar. 

Astounding Facts: Sperm whales were killed in two massive hunts, the Moby Dick whalers who hunted and worked in 1740-1880, and the modern whalers whose operations peaked in 1964, when 29,255 were killed. Most recent estimates suggest a global population of about 360,000 animals down from about 1,100,000 before whaling.

The Old Tale of Moby Dick

The Great Legend of Moby Dick:

In Herman Melville's classic novel, a Sperm whale called “Moby Dick” was portrayed as an evil monster that sunk ships and killed sailors. The story told the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whale ship Pequod, which was commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale: Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white Sperm whale. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg. Ahab intends to take revenge. Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the main character's journey, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. The narrator's reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor's life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides. The book portrays insecurity that is still seen today when it comes to non-human beings along with the belief that these beings understand and act like humans. The story is based on the actual events around the whale ship Essex, which was attacked by a Sperm whale while at sea and sank.

Unfortunately, this is the reputation these whales have gotten throughout the years, perhaps because of their large size and huge teeth. Though the great white whale portrayed in Herman Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick” was envisioned solely in his creative mind, this was based on the marine mammal known as the Sperm whale – perhaps one can see why this was a treasure of world literature. We now know that Sperm whales are not dangerous to people; in fact, Sperm whales do not break ships apart nor do they swallow sailors. The truth of the matter is that we know a great deal about what Sperm whales do not do, but we seem to know less on their population dynamics. Mainly, this is because Sperm whales are deep diving creatures and spend about 90% of their life underwater. 

Sperm Whale Getting Ready for Deep Dive; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

A Portfolio on the Deepest Diving Whale in the Gulf of Mexico:

SPERM WHALE (Physeter macrocephalus):

Sperm whales are Odontocetes - toothed whales rather than filter feeders and are the deepest and longest of all whale divers catching giant squid in the dark ocean depths. Most dives are thought to be about 400-600m in depth, but they may be able to dive as deep as 3000m. The head of the Sperm whale is blunt and squared off, and has a small, under slung jaw. The head is also large, and makes up to 1/3 of the total body length and more than 1/3 of its mass; it also encompasses the world’s largest brain of any animal. A single blowhole is located forward on the left side of the head, and the blow, which is bushy, is projected forward rather than straight up as it is with other whales. Its body has a wrinkled, shriveled appearance, particularly behind the head. This particular blow is at a 45 degree angle and is quite distinctive from other whales. The area around a sperm whales mouth, lips and lower jaw is colored white against the dark grey - brown of the rest of the animal. This coloration is thought to assist the whales when they are in the dark ocean depths hunting for squid with the possibility that there may even be phosphorescent bacteria that live on the white skin so making light - most squid are readily attracted to light in the darkness.

Sperm Whale Logging at Surface before Sunset; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

The Sperm whale is usually a dark, brownish gray with light streaks, spots and scratches. The ventral (underside) of the body is a lighter gray and may have white patches. The Sperm whale has a triangular dorsal fin, followed by knuckles along the spine. Its flippers are small and slightly tapered, while its flukes are broad, measuring as much as 16 feet (5 m) from tip to tip. Adult males reach lengths of 49-59 feet (15-18 m) and weigh up to 35-45 tons (31,750-40,800 kg). Adult females are much smaller, growing to about 36 feet (11 m) and a maximum weight of 13-14 tons (12,000-12,700 kg).

Its main source of food is medium-sized deep water squid, but it also feeds on species of fish, skate, octopus, and smaller squid. A Sperm whale consumes about one ton (907 kg) of food each day. The lower jaw contains 18-25 large teeth on each side of the jaw, 3-8 inches in length. The upper jaw may have tiny teeth but they rarely erupt. The upper jaw contains a series of sockets into which the lower teeth fit.

Highly amusing, yet interesting article “Why is the ocean so salty? Whale Sperm!” 

Sperm Whale 45 Degree Blow; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

15 Fun Facts about Sperm whales:

Did you know?

1. The name Sperm whale comes from the enormous bulbous spermaceti organ in the head. The alternative name "cachalot" was the name given by the early whalers as when they caught one they would yell just "caught a lot!” Legend has it that sometime in the early 18th century, around 1712, Captain Christopher Hussey, while cruising for North Atlantic right whales near shore, was blown offshore by a northerly wind, where he encountered a Sperm whale pod and killed one. Although the story may not be true, Sperm whales were indeed soon exploited by American whalers. 

2. The scientific name Physeter macrocephalus -- from the Greek physeter (blower), makers (long) and kephale (head).

3. The main threats to the Sperm whales are human disturbance, entanglement in fishing nets both deliberately and unconsciously, and environmental degradation (i.e. pollution, swallowing man-made objects).

4. Sperm whales are easily the largest toothed carnivores on earth. Sperm whales hang out in a world that most of us can barely comprehend - a world harder for humans to survive in than outer space.

5. Sperm whales have a huge spermaceti organ in the head that causes the head to be from 1/3 to a 1/4 of the length of the animal. Clearly this is an enormous structure and while it has similar counterparts in other Odontocetes - many dolphins and small toothed whales have a bulbous "melon" with a similar internal structure - it is developed to an extreme in the Sperm whale. The organ itself is full of oil which becomes a solid waxy substance at room temperature. About 25 to 40 barrels of whale oil could be had from a Sperm whale of average size. Extremes of over 100 barrels are found in legend.

6. They frequently stay in deep waters which means that they are usually found offshore unless depths of more than 200m are found near to shores for example off volcanic and oceanic islands. Most commonly they are found in submarine canyons at the edges of the continental shelf, but may also occur in mid-ocean. They are discovered in deep waters as this is where their prey of squid is found. One of the behavior characteristics that are displayed frequently with Sperm whales is logging. What is logging you may ask? It is when a whale lies still at the surface of the water, resting, with its tail hanging down. While floating motionless, part of the head, the dorsal fin or parts of the back are exposed at the surface. Sperm whales are often seen logging and are relatively easy to approach in this state.

7. A whole range of cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefish), deep-sea fish, and non-food items have been found in the stomachs of Sperm whales around the world. Cephalopods however are thought to be the major prey. In some parts of the world, Sperm whales have been known to steal the catch from long lines set by commercial fishing boats. The skin of most Sperm whales bears the scars from the suckers of the squid that they feed on.

8. The largest toothed whale on the planet, the Sperm whale is the deepest diver of the great whales and can descend to depths of over 3,300 feet (1000 m) and stay submerged for over an hour. Average dives are 20-50 minutes long to a depth of 980-1,970 feet (300-600 m). At such great depths there is little or no solar light. However, organisms at these depths may produce biochemical light (bioluminescence). Sperm whales use their highly developed echolocation ability to locate food and to navigate; making nearly constant clicking sounds or “morse-code” or otherwise known as codas through the cavities of their skull that pulse through the water and bounce off of their subjects. The reflected sound bounces back to the whale, which in result interprets the echo. Using this technique, many kinds of whale and dolphins can “see” in complete darkness. Sperm whales can most likely determine the size, direction, and distance of the prey, which helps them hunt deep below where no light is visible. There is also a theory that sperm whales may stun their prey with a burst of sound. The only problem with echolocation is that it can also give away the presence of the whale if the prey hears it. Fortunately, for Sperm whales the giant squid cannot hear.

9. The average life span for a Sperm whale is 60-70 years.

10. Molecules called myoglobin store oxygen in muscles. They hold onto oxygen molecules until they are needed by the muscles. The more myoglobin in the muscle the darker the muscle will be. More myoglobin in a muscle means more oxygen can be stored in that muscle. Sperm whale muscles are almost black they contain so much myoglobin.

11. Inside every whale flipper (or pectoral fin, as the experts like to call it) is a collection of bones that look suspiciously like a human hand - complete even with thumb bones.

12. Sperm whales increase the levels of primary production and carbon export by defecating iron rich feces into surface waters of the Southern Ocean. The iron rich feces cause phytoplankton to grow and take up more carbon from the atmosphere. When the phytoplankton dies, it sinks to the deep ocean and takes the atmospheric carbon with it. By reducing the abundance of sperm whales in the Southern Ocean, whaling has resulted in an extra 2 million tons of carbon remaining in the atmosphere each year.

13. Sperm whales are found in all oceans of the world. The males, alone or in groups, are found in higher latitudes. From time to time they migrate toward lower latitudes, and only the largest mature males appear to enter the breeding grounds close to the equator. Females, calves, and juveniles remain in the warmer tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans year round.

14. Ambergris, a strange substance found in large lumps in the lower intestine of sperm whales, is formed around squid beaks that remain in the stomach. It was used in the making of perfume, and continues to be valuable in spite of its widespread replacement by synthetics. In fact, Sperm whales are often found to have thousands of the beaks in their stomachs; however, the sharp beaks irritate the stomach lining. As a reaction to the irritation of all the squid beaks, the whale produces in its intestines a cholesterol derivative which has come to be called ambergris.

15. In spite of their reputation as a fierce hunter, sperm whales have a natural enemy in the form of the killer whale, also known as the orca. Pods of orcas have been known to target groups of females where they try to separate the young whales from their mothers. The female whales attempt to protect their babies by forming a circle with the young calves in the center. They use their teeth and tales as weapons against the invading killer whales. It is believed that only the largest and oldest sperm whales are immune to the attacks of the orca.

Sperm Whale Calf Fluke; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

Theory behind Echolocation: 

The reason for this organ is unknown as is so much whale biology, due to the whales being so difficult to study. There are several theories as to what this organ is for and it may well have more than one of these functions:

1)  Echolocation - as Sperm whales are known to hunt squid in the dark ocean depths, they need some way of finding them. Dolphins are known to use echolocation and the "melon" of some species is known to be involved in this. The spermaceti organ may be used to focus and control the beam of sound that the whale uses for echolocation or even for stunning its prey by focusing sound.

2)  A diving / buoyancy aid - The waxy oil within the organ has a melting point of 32 degrees Celsius. By controlling blood flow to the organ (and therefore its temperature), the whale might be able to control whether the wax is liquid or solid. If the wax is solid, it contracts and becomes denser, making the whale sink better. When melted again, the wax expands, making the whale less dense.  

3)  This could be a way of helping the whale with diving and ascending. Sperm whales are known to dive deeper and for longer than any other animal. Sufficient heat is produced and stored during a dive in the muscles to melt the wax on the way back to the surface.

4)  Battering ram / shock absorber - a relatively recent suggestion is that the spermaceti organ in males enables them to fight each other while competing for females by swimming directly at each other and battering with their heads. Similar behaviour is certainly seen in many other species of animal, on land and sea, the fact that the males are so much larger than the females implies that direct competition may take place between the males. The Sperm whale is capable of using its head in this way and is graphically demonstrated by the wreck of the whale ship Essex (87 feet long with a 21 man crew) in 1820.  This provided evidence that it  was repeatedly rammed amidships by a large stricken male Sperm whale and sent to the bottom of the ocean marooning the crew in a small life boat. This was the true inspiration for Moby Dick.

Sperm Whale Reveals Triangular Dorsal Fin with Knuckles; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

After examining the life history of the Sperm whale before my project on the Viking Vision, I was ready to see the whale up-close and personal! I will never forget the afternoon when I first sighted a pod of Sperm whales. My afternoon started out like every other afternoon. I was on my fifth day onboard the ship and minimal marine life was seen, but still no sign of the Sperm whale. I noticed earlier that morning that we were approaching a deepwater canyon within the next few hours. What you should have taken from the “15 Fun Facts” is that Sperm whales love to hunt within these grounds. If I wanted to research and carefully examine the Sperm whale this would be the ideal place to do so. The morning turned in the afternoon and our water depths began to increase rapidly. I remember the Captain and the mates on the bridge were all puzzled by the large increase in depths that we were experiencing. As they were discussing the causes of this, I had walked outside to view a few Mahi-Mahi (more about these in future posts) that were swimming next to our bow. The other biologist onboard, Rich, appeared from the other side of the ship; he was looking at a group of Black-finned Tuna on the starboard side for a few minutes. Instantly, he scurried over to me and excitedly screamed “Sperm whale, Sperm whale, Sperm whale!” 

Immediately I grabbed my binoculars and started scanning the water 8km ahead of our ship. There the blows were, just as I imagined! The 45 degree slant made their blows really visible while swimming on the horizon. I stood there memorized by their large bodies passing ahead of us. We noticed a pod of 5 Sperm whales logging near the horizon. All of a sudden I skimmed the starboard side of the ship and spotted a pod of 3 Sperm whales approaching closely to the ship’s starboard bow! Instantaneously, I sighted the mom and calf only 1km away from where I was standing. I noticed a strange blow about 500 meters behind the pair; I discovered it was a bull Sperm Whale. It was really awesome to see a family of Sperm whales logging right in front of me. I turned around to grab Rich’s attention. As I turned I heard a large splash approximately 250 meters in front of me! I directly looked at where the splash was and within the same instant, saw the calf Sperm whale breach high out of the water! To be honest, I was not aware that Sperm whales breached! I was thrilled to see such beauty gracefully jump out of the water! 

Sperm Whale Fluke during First Sighting of Sperm Whale; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008

I will never forget that moment – the calmness of the water, the brightness of the powerful sun, the clear blue skies, and most importantly, the family of Sperm whales that came in close proximity of our ship to greet us on that fine afternoon. The sighting of Sperm whales was far better than I had ever imagined or could have read from the internet! It really was a magical moment.

Diving with a Sperm Whale:

According to Dr. Galapagos, this is how we dive with a Sperm whale. We start at the surface. Our sperm whale is getting ready to go hunting. Her hunting grounds are where the squid and other tasty sea creatures are bountiful - a world where "the sun don't shine." Straight down. Way down. Into total cold crushing blackness.  If our whale has just come up from a dive she first spends 10 minutes or more clearing her lungs, blowing a breath in and out every 12 seconds. She's getting rid of old carbon dioxide from the last dive and loading up with fresh oxygen. She's got to store up a lot of oxygen because she will be holding her breath for the next 45 to 60 minutes.  Most of the excess oxygen for the next dive will be stored in the huge powerful swimming muscles. 

Sperm Whale Displays Triangular Dorsal Fin and Blubbery Skin; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 02.2008

Finally our whale is ready to dive. She takes two more huge gulps of air, points her head down, raises her flukes (tail fins) out of the water and dives straight down. Now she starts swimming straight for the bottom. She is swimming steadily (or gliding - new research indicates that many cetaceans, and other diving marine mammals, glide more than swim when they are going down) at 3 1/2 miles per hour (5.6 km/hr). This is a fast walking pace for humans. It is probably the most efficient speed for the whale. It is important to be efficient now. Swimming too fast would waste oxygen. Too slow would waste time. Down and down at 1 and 1/2 meters per second. It takes over a minute to go as deep as a football field. After 3 long minutes we are 270 meters (885 feet) below the surface and still a long way to go. It is getting cold and dark. There is some light down here but not much. I want to go back to the surface. There are almost 3 football fields of water above us. If my calculations are correct the pressure here is 355 pounds per square inch, or 24 atmospheres. There is over 51,000 pounds pressing on every square foot of the whale's body.

This is already past the limit that a human diver breathing air can survive. If his rib cage hasn't collapsed from the pressure, it soon will. Why doesn't the sperm whale's rib cage collapse? It does. But the sperm whale's rib cage is designed to fold up and collapse. Also the lungs have collapsed and the air in the whale's body is squished to one fourth of the volume it was on the surface. The whale's lungs will collapse completely before very long.  After 3 minutes of not breathing most humans have passed out and, if they don't start breathing soon, are heading for another existence. But our sperm whale is just starting.  She continues her journey downward, still going straight down. Now it is pitch black. No light, except possibly the bio-luminescent glow of some of the deep sea creatures down here. How does she know which way is up? Echolocation? Or perhaps an unerring sense of gravity we don't have? Humans (and tortoises) would be hopelessly disorientated and confused.

After five and a half minutes the whale reaches five hundred meters (1640 feet). Humans can live and work down here but it takes days of compression to get there and days of decompression to get back. It also requires a mixture of special gasses. The sperm whale does it over and over again several times a day. The pressure is now over 700 psi (48 atmospheres). After eleven minutes of steady swimming straight down, mostly in complete utter blackness, our whale reaches her happy hunting grounds. Now she is about 1000 meters (3280 feet or 3/5 of a mile) below the surface. Eleven football field lengths of water is above us. The pressure is 1421 pounds per square inch (almost 100 atmospheres). 200,000 pounds (100 tons) of water press on every square foot of the whale. All the time, day and night, winter and summer, the water temperature is 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the typical hunting depth for a sperm whale. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 meters. For the next 20 to 40 minutes our whale will stay down here in the dark and cold, hunting and eating. There are many unanswered mysteries about what goes on down here, but alas, we must save them for another article. At this depth the air in the whale's body is one percent of its original volume, and it is 100 times more dense.

Sperm Whale Fluke with Strong Glare; Gulf of Mexico: Viking Vision 01.2008