Stan Ulanski: Sperm Whales: Demons of the Sea?

The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers, by Stan UlanskiWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Stan Ulanski, author of The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers. The California Current—part of the large, swirling North Pacific gyre—flows slowly southward along the west coast of North America, stretching nearly 2,000 miles from southern British Columbia to the tip of Baja California in Mexico. To a casual observer standing on the shore, the vast current betrays no discernible signs, yet life abounds just over the horizon. Ulanski takes us into the water on a journey through this magnificent, unique marine ecosystem, illuminating the scientific and biological marvels and the astonishing array of flora and fauna streaming along our Pacific coast.

In a previous post, Ulanski shares a glimpse into the world of Pacific sea turtles. In today’s post, Ulanski debunks a popular myth about sperm whales passed down by mariners and sailors that inspired books and movies.


In the movie In the Heart of the Sea, based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book of the same title, an enraged sperm whale twice rams the whale ship Essex. In a matter of minutes, the Essex starts sinking and capsizes on its port side, leaving its crew stranded on the vast Pacific in three small and under-provisioned whale boats.

But about ten years before the sinking of the Essex in 1820, an even more cunning and fearsome whale received widespread notoriety throughout the whaling community and even among the general public. The whale, Mocha Dick, was a massive seventy-foot-long albino sperm whale that had purportedly killed more than thirty men and had attacked numerous whaling vessels over the span of almost thirty years. The whale was named for the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile, where he was first sighted; while the “Dick” part is thought to be the practice among nineteenth-century whalers to assign common names, like “Dick” or “Tom,” to certain notorious whales. Mocha Dick most assuredly would have gotten the attention of Herman Melville, who was familiar with the whaling profession, having sailed on the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841. Historians believe that it was Mocha Dick and the Essex disaster that provided Melville with the insight to write the novel Moby Dick.

If the above incidents were indeed the model for Melville’s own malicious creature, can we also conclude that Melville’s description of an enraged Moby Dick attacking whalers and ships alike is correct? A watery demon bent on vengeance against his tormentors? According to present-day whale researchers, the historical view of the sperm whale as an evil monster is incorrect, one that most likely has been embellished over time by mariners and sailors.

What we know about these whales is that they are generally shy and easily startled about anything new in their environment. Even as far back as the nineteenth century, Thomas Beale, a whaling ship surgeon, published this description: “The sperm whale is a most timid and inoffensive animal . . . readily endeavoring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance.” The captains of numerous whaling vessels also reported that while Mocha Dick was relentless in his attacks on whaling ships, he left all other ships alone since he rarely attacked unless provoked. He was observed to docilely swim along and around ships at times.

But can we summarily dismiss the eyewitness accounts by whalers of sperm whales exhibiting aggressive behavior? Were these rogue whales outliers from the norm? A look back to the whaling era may provide some answers. Whalers were quick to recognize the value of spermaceti oil as an exceptionally fine lubricant. The oil is produced by the spermaceti organ that fills most of the whale’s huge head, which typically makes up a quarter of an individual’s entire length. But for quite some time, the specific function of the spermaceti organ remained a mystery.

After a number of wrong turns, including a belief that the organ plays a role in buoyancy of the whale, it became clear that it is important in echolocation. But the organ may serve other purposes, as in male-male combat—a battering ram to injure and disable an opponent. Observations of aggression in this species suggest that head-butting during encounters of two males is a basal behavior of these marine mammals.

However, a group of University of Utah researchers have proposed that the ability of a sperm whale to ram with its head and destroy a stout wooden ship many times more massive than itself stems from the primal act of aggression of one whale to another. To the researchers, a charging sperm whale has enough mass and speed to disable a vessel of the whaling era. According to written accounts by Owen Chase, one of the few survivors of the Essex sinking, the whale that struck his ship was eighty-five feet in length—huge compared to today’s whales that rarely grow past sixty-five feet—and rammed the ship with a speed of six knots.

Stan Ulanski, professor of geology and environmental science at James Madison University, is the author of The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic and Fishing North Carolina’s Outer Banks: The Complete Guide to Catching More Fish from Surf, Pier, Sound, and Ocean. His latest book, The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers, is now available. For more posts by Ulanski on the blog, see A Floating Jungle: The Sargassum Community” and “Catch of the Day: Spanish Mackerel.”