Etymology. The name sperm
whale is a truncation of spermaceti
Spermaceti, originally mistakenly identified as the whales' semen,
is the semi-liquid, waxy substance found within the whale's head.
he spermaceti organ contains a waxy substance which commonly appears in the heads of toothed whales and dolphins of the family
, in particular, the
. Spermaceti’s many uses led to large scale whaling of the elusive sperm whale and it rapid demise. It is the only one of the so-called giant whales that has teeth.
is easily identifiable
by its huge, blunt head. What is the use of the spermaceti (literally whale seed) organ containing its waxy liquid. Some 2,000 liters of it lies in a huge sac called the spermaceti organ.
Early whalers used the oil for many things, as its oil did not go rancid in storage and remained sweetly scented. Some of the items were candles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, a lubricant for clocks and watches as well as oil-filled lamps.
The invention of the spermaceti candle provided greater opportunities for utilizing the night time hours. A greater interest in the written word no doubt contributed to the demand for better artificial light sources. Wealthy Americans had little concern for the expense.
Robert Carter, the owner of 70,000 acres and 400 to 500 slaves, burned seven large candles in his dining room per night. Such a luxury would have been beyond most Americans. For the wealthy few, the spermaceti candle provided a brighter and cleaner light. While the spermaceti candle was in no danger of replacing the tallow candle in popular use, it filled a new role in the lighting market for those wealthy enough to afford it.
For more than 100 years it was believed that the sac of oil helped the whale adjust its buoyancy when it dived into the depths after its favorite prey – the giant deep-sea squid. The idea was that by reducing the blood flow to the spermaceti organ the oil would cool down, become denser and allow the whale to sink down after its prey. It was an novel idea, but scientists believed a different hypothesis. They believe the sac of oil is the focusing lens for the whale’s enormously powerful echolocation system.
What scientists do not agree on is just how the animals produce and aim these sounds. It is very hard to study the spermaceti organ in a living whale. That leaves dead whales to study and without the buoyancy of water, this huge sac becomes a very soft, floppy tissue making it very difficult to study its structure to determine how the sound is produced.
It’s not only sperm whales that have this oil-filled organ. Think of the high-domed “forehead” of dolphins. Like all toothed whales, their domed forehead contains an oil-filled sac, which is used as part of their echolocation system.
AMBERGRIS: The sale of ambergris is prohibited by law as the sperm whale is an endangered species which is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act in 1988. When whales eat squid, their beaks are surrounded by a fatty substance to protect the whale. It eventually excretes these large lumps of what is by now ambergris which can weigh up to 100 pounds. Luxury perfumers insist that the smallest amount of ambergris makes the fragrance last longer.
The sperm whales International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) position is listed as