A Salute to the Sperm Whale

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Wherever you go in Connecticut, especially in the southeast coastal region, you can’t help but be reminded of the old New England whaling days just about anywhere you go. Whether it’s a die-hard Whalers fan still sporting a 20 year old cap (or the Hartford Wolf Pack briefly identifying as the Connecticut Whale from 2010-2013), businesses bearing the label of “Whaling City” in New London, New London’s whale oil row, or any other such relics, it’s not hard to see why the sperm whale gets the honor of being our official state animal.

We’ll start our sperm whale tribute by talking a little biology. The sperm whale is the largest of all of the toothed (non-baleen) whales in the whole world. The average adult male is around 50 feet in length, but can exceed lengths of 70 feet, while weighing in at an average of 45 tons. They have very large heads in proportion to the rest of their bodies, with their heads accounting for up to 33% of their body length1.

The sperm whale enjoys a diet that would be the envy of any seafood-loving human. They consistently dine on squid, octopus and cuttlefish, doing so for their 60-70 year average lifespan. Too bad we can’t enjoy a menu like that every day. The average sperm whale will eat as much as 3% of its body weight in a typical day. For males, this means 2,700 pounds of food each day and for females 9002.

Like all whales, the sperm whale is a mammal and not a fish. They breathe air, give birth to live young and nurse their young. Speaking of sperm whale calves, they spend an average of 15 months developing in the womb before being born at a whopping average weight of 2000 lbs.

Once born, it takes quite a while for sperm whales to reach reproductive maturity and full body size. Females do not become sexually mature until around 9 years of age while males have to wait twice that long. Many sperm whales won’t reach their full body size until they exceed 50 years of age, so they’re growing for the vast majority of their lives.

Sperm whales aren’t very picky about where they live. They populate all of Earth’s oceans and can survive in most any kind of climate. They are social animals, though their social structure is a complex and somewhat peculiar one. Females form lifelong pods and living with them are all of their calves. The males will typically leave the pod during their teenage years and mostly lead secluded lives after that. However, there also exist sporadic “bachelor groups”1, consisting of a small number of males who usually formed bonds with each other while growing up as members of the same pod.

As adults, sperm whales have a very distinctive shape. This is largely due to their giant heads, but also consists of a squiggly-shaped blowhole which sits atop their heads at an asymmetrical location. There is a substance within these giant heads of theirs called spermaceti, which is where the name of the species originates. Spermaceti is a substance consisting of waxes and oils that are produced by a myriad of organs located above the skull of the sperm whale.

Spermaceti was a highly coveted substance back in our state’s whaling days. When a sperm whale was harpooned, captured, and brought aboard the whaling ship, the spermaceti extraction process would begin. After it was removed from the heads of the whales, it would be kept in large vats and boiled before reaching shore where it would be sold and processed further.

Once the spermaceti was fully processed, it was a highly useful substance. It entered in to the composition of industrial lubricants, cosmetic products, leather oils, pharmaceutical drugs, ointments, salves and more. It was also key to the production of candles3, something very valuable in the pre-light bulb days. Having the goods to aid in the production of so many vital commodities, Connecticut made a great deal of money during the 18th and 19th centuries and local communities profited immensely from the whaling industry.

Fortunately, we no longer have to turn toward whaling to produce these items today and so the profitable yet highly inhumane whaling industry is the thing of the past for our country. In appreciation of the noble sperm whale and of all that it has done for our state, Connecticut declared it the official state animal in 1975.

 

Works Cited

1. Author Unavailable
Sperm Whale
http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperm_whale/

2. Majic, Leslie
Whale Facts and Information
http://www.majictwins.tripod.com/whalefacts.html/

3. Author Unavailable
Spermaceti
WhaleFacts.org
http://www.whalefacts.org/spermaceti/

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