Spermaceti Functions in Sperm Whales

Humans have hunted the sperm whale for centuries. Shortly after World War II, whalers hunted the sperm whale to such an extent that it drastically reduced their number in which the species still haven’t recovered from. The sperm whale was hunted primarily for its spermaceti.

Spermaceti was considered the best oil to use in lamps to light homes with. By using spermaceti in the lamps, it produced a smokeless flame which was beneficial for burning indoors. Spermaceti also was used to lubricate machines throughout the industrial age. Although beneficial to humans, how was spermaceti beneficial to the sperm whale?

The head of the sperm whale is 1/3 the length of the whale itself. The spermaceti sack is located within the head of the sperm whale and measures approximately 1/4 of the length of the whale. The spermaceti sack is encased within strong tendons that not only help the sperm whale breath, by opening and closing the blowhole, but helps the spermaceti sack keep its shape.

Within the spermaceti sack is the spermaceti. Early whalers thought the substance resembled sperm. Other sailors thought the spermaceti substance was actual sperm, even though it is not. This is how the sperm whale received its name.

Spermaceti has three main functions within the sperm whale. The first function is to help the sperm whale descend to great depths to hunt for food. In turn, it also helps the sperm whale return to the surface. The second function is used in a form of echo location and communication with other sperm whales.

Spermaceti is primarily a liquid. However, it will solidify into a waxy substance when introduced to cold temperatures. It is believed that the sperm whale allows some of the cold ocean water in to help solidify the spermaceti. The purpose of this is to allow the massive sperm whale, with thick, buoyant blubber, to sink in a dive to the deep depths of the ocean to hunt for their favorite food which is the giant squid.

Alternatively, because the sperm whale is a mammal this means it is warm blooded. The warmth of the sperm whale’s blood will re-warm the spermaceti to allow the sperm whale to ascend to the surface for air.

The other function of the spermaceti is to allow the sperm whale to use echo location and communication with other sperm whales. Sperm whales use echo location to navigate through the pitch black ocean depths and to locate potential food in little or no light.

When it comes to communicating with other sperm whales, they use a series of clicks to communicate with the rest of the pod. In fact, biologist have found that each pod of sperm whales have their own specific dialect.

How does echo location and communication relate to the spermaceti, you ask? The clicks originate in an organ toward the front of the sperm whale’s head, fondly referred to as the monkey lips because it resembles the lips of a monkey. There are two nasal passages connected to one nostril. One nasal passage is large, which is used for breathing and the other nasal passage is small and designed to make sounds.

As air travels through the smaller nasal passage deep inside the sperm whale’s head, under the spermaceti, it is pushed through the monkey lips. As air is pushed through the monkey lips, they clap together making a click sound. The sound of the click ripples through the spermaceti toward the sperm whale’s skull. Because the sperm whale’s skull is shaped like a radar dish, it sends the vibration of the sound through a series of condensing lenses in the head toward the front of the skull sending it out into the ocean creating an echo location affect. Consider the monkey lips organ as the sound generator. The spermaceti is like a sound modifier and the radar shaped skull is a sound reflector.

The sperm whale communicates with other sperm whale with clicks created the same way clicks are created for echo location. An interesting fact to note is that the amount of time between clicks sends a message to other sperm whales as to the size of the whale generating the sound. For example, the longer the interval, the larger the sperm whale is. Also worth noting is that males have louder clicks than females. In fact, male clicks can reach over 200 decibels and be heard up to 40 miles away.

So as you can see, spermaceti isn’t useful to just humans. In fact, we can survive without spermaceti. However, spermaceti is an essential function to the survival of the sperm whale as it needed for the whale to feed, communicate, and navigate through the ocean.