Sperm whales


Sperm whales dive deeper than any submarines. They can be spotted close to the coast in Norway, New Zealand and on the Azores.



Sperm whales dive deeper than any submarines. They can be spotted close to the coast in Norway, New Zealand and on the Azores.


Foto: shutterstock/Shane_Gross


Sperm whales are the biggest predators on earth and have the biggest head of all animals. They can dive to depths of three kilometers, being able to switch all bodily functions to standby-mode.

Sperm whales are the best whales to start whale watching, by far. First of all, sperm whales are the most famous and most well known (Moby Dick!) whales of all. Second, they only appear in a few places on the planet but are very reliable to be found there. Third, they are easy to locate by hydrophone and even easier to identify by their blow, which is slightly tilted to the left, and their massive tail. And last but not least, they usually lie motionless in the water after resurfacing after a dive and always raise their fluke before diving again. This guarantees the best photos. All of that makes sperm whales the perfect whale watching whales.

But that would be too good to be true.

Because sperm whales have a unique feature among the big whales: Teeth and their predatory nature. I admit having mixed emotions, when I stood in front of a life-sized model of a 20 meter sperm whale in Andenes, Norway, knowing that I would soon be crossing a deep sea canyon, filled with sperm whales, in a 5 meter Zodiac. Sperm whale teeth are the size of a fist – assuming that you have a big fist. A sperm whale’s mouth is home to more than 40 of those. They use those to go hunting for deep sea squid in a depth of 2.000 meters. Scars and scratches on the whales’ giant heads indicate that the squid usually don’t play along willingly. Deep sea canyon, giant squid, monstrous teeth. Riding on top of those in a 5 meter Zodiac might let you have second thoughts.

»Sperm whales can dive to depths of two to three kilometers (!) and hold their breath for up to two hours (!).«

Even if “Moby Dick” tried to convince you otherwise, sperm whales are completely peaceful and social animals. Basically, sperm whales are like cows – only smarter and a lot more fascinating. For example, sperm whales have the biggest head of all animals anywhere. It can amount to one third of the whole body, making it the size of a pick-up truck. That big head is home to the biggest brain on Earth (up to 8 kilos) and enormous amounts of yellowish wax-like oil (called “spermaceti”, hence the animal’s alternative name “sperm whale”), which was the reason why sperm whales were hunted to the brink of extinction.

The oil is most likely used for controlling buoyancy during dives. It can be heated or cooled by the sea water, altering its density. At higher density, the whale sinks down; at lower density the whale goes upwards. That’s at least one theory – it’s still uncertain, if and how the sperm whale uses the oil in his head for his ultra deep dives.

However, no question is that sperm whales dive to depths of two to three kilometers (!), holding their breath up to 120 minutes (!). During longer dives, their heart rate goes down significantly and only the most important organs (heart and brain) are supplied with blood. During extreme dives, the animal can even collapse its lungs, relying solely on the oxygen reserves in its blood and muscles. In situations like those, it certainly seems like a good idea to have a built-in automatic resurfacing programming.

To this, the oil is also used as an acoustic lens. Like bats, the whale relies on echo-location to find its prey when it goes hunting in the pitch dark depths. Sperm whales constantly send short clicking-sounds, which are reflected by objects ahead and then get received and processed.

That way, sperm whales can hunt for giant squid in great depths at high speed. There are, however, no long pursuits: A sperm whale can emit signals so loud that its prey is possibly stunned for a short period of time: With clicks reaching up to 236 (!) decibel sperm whales are the loudest animals in the world. Ranked second is the blue whale with about 180 decibel recorded. Still louder than any Motörhead show.

Those short clicking sounds are also what whale watchers use to locate sperm whales: The ocean is scanned with a hydrophone and as soon as the clicking stops, the whale is about to surface.


Illustration: Tobias Gehrt / studio2112.de

Males 12 to 20 meters, females 9 to 13 meters. Maximum weight: Up to 50 tons.


Grey to blackish grey, sometimes dark brown. Occasionally white like in Moby Dick.


Giant head that can amount to one third of the total body. Males are a lot bulkier than females.


Medium high and bushy. Doesn’t point straight up, but front left, making identification unambiguous.


Very low and hardly visible fin. Located far in the back on a hump with bumps leading down to the tail.


Very massive tail. Mostly straight, sometimes frilled rear edge. Pointy and triangular.


Lies in the water calmly after surfacing, resting and preparing for the next dive. Gathers some momentum before diving, showing its fluke.


Dives from 20 to 50 minutes. Waiting for a diving sperm whale doesn’t make sense, even though they often resurface at the same place.




Foto: istock/Anders_Peter_Amsnaes


Sperm whales are unmistakably identifiable by their massive tail and there blow, which is directed to the front left.

Most likely, you get to meet 1 to 10 animals, sometimes larger groups of 100 animals and more. There are smaller groups of bachelors with young, male singles. Females with calves can be found in bigger mating-schools of up to 20 to 25 animals. Older males tend to live alone or in groups of up to 6 animals and only visit the females during mating season.

The massive tail with the triangular fluke can already be seen from far away. The blow, directed to the front left side, makes them easy to identify, too.

After resurfacing, they often lie in the water absolutely motionlessly, looking like a big log of wood, as you can mostly see their big square head floating on the water.

Before diving again, the sperm whale visibly stretches its back and gathers some momentum, disappearing completely under water. After accelerating this way, he resurfaces again, making head, back and tail visible. Then, after bending its back, the sperm whale dives down almost vertically, raising its fluke far out of the water.

After diving at depths of more than 1.000 meters for almost an hour, sperm whales are usually too exhausted for jumping or for other activities on the surface. It takes some luck to see sperm whales do jumps and spyhopping.


Foto: istock/Action_Adventure

Where and when SPERM WHALES

The best places to see sperm whales are Andenes in Norway and Kaikoura in New Zealand. Chances are also good on the Azores.

Sperm whales live in oceanic waters with a depth of at least 1.000 meters. Females and calves keep exclusively to warmer waters of at least 15°C; males also inhabit colder polar regions.

There are only few places, where sperm whales can be spotted close to the coast. At Andenes in Norway and Kaikoura in New Zealand, on the Azores, the sperm whale populations are even true to their location.

On the Azores, sperm whales can be seen all year long. In Norway you can only see them in summer and it’s only males there, which migrate towards the females in warmer waters during wintertime. Sperm whale safaris are best done from Andenes in Norway and from Kaikoura in New Zealand.

There are also sperm whales in the Mediterranean near France, Italy and Spain. You have good chances to meet them at the Ligurian Sea and the Street of Gibraltar.

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