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Sperm whale deep dives, and Sperm whale facts

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Dr Galapagos in his fabulous single-tortoise copter The sperm whale is holder of many impressive records. Sperm whales hang out in a world that most of us can barely comprehend - a world challenging for humans to survive in than outer space. But Dr. G is not afraid to go there - at least in his imagination

redish brown horizontal rule
arrow pointing to Dr. Galapagos Dr. Galapagos in his fabulous Single-Tortoise Copter

 There is something wrong with the above cartoon characature of a sperm whale.
What is it?


Dear Dr. Galapagos,
What's the deepest a whale can dive?

Greg in Boise (age 12)

A sperm whale swimming with a bowhead whale? Not too likely.
Spermwhales are the holders of many impressive world records:

They are probably the deepest air-breathing divers on the planet.

They have the biggest head for their size of any animal (up to one third of their body length).

Sperm whales apparantly have the biggest brain (9 kg or 20 pounds) of any animal that has every lived on this planet (what they are doing with all that brain, no one is sure).

They are almost certainly the largest toothed predator that has ever lived, and they have the biggest teeth (25cm or 10 inches long).

It is thought that sperm whales have the lowest reproductive rate of any animal - not necessarily a good trait.

Sperm whales carry in their great huge heads the world's largest natural sound producing organ (unfortunately for them this organ is full of a fat called spermaceti that was once very popular amongst humans for making a high grade oil).

During the height of whaling they were the most hunted of any whale and probably more sperm whales were killed than any other species of whale - a record they would probably rather not have had.

The difference in size between male and female sperm whales is the greatest of all the cetaceans. The females are only two-thirds the length, and one third the mass, of the big males. Another example of how body mass changes faster than length.

The tail-flukes (tail flippers or tail fin to we land-lubbers) are the largest with respect to the whale's size of any of the cetaceans.


Why do we dive so deep?
We dive to eat the tasty squid.
     Molecules called myoglobin store oxygen in muscles. They hold onto oxygen molecules until they are needed by the muscles. Different animals and different muscles can have different amounts of myoglobin. The more myoglobin in the muscle the darker the muscle will be. Which part of the turkey do you think has more myoglobin, the thigh (drumstick) or breast? More myoglobin in a muscle means more oxygen can be stored in that muscle. Sperm whale muscles are almost black they contain so much myoglobin.


     The story is told that sperm whales feed on giant squids. And stories are told of mighty battles (which no scientist has ever verified). While sperm whales do occasionally eat some pretty big squids, the majority of their food consists of fairly small squid. One source estimates that a medium sized whale must catch 1000 of these zippy little morsels every day. No one knows how the relatively big slow-turning whales manage to catch such agile quick prey. No one has ever seen them catch or eat their food. Scientists learned what they eat by looking in the stomachs of dead sperm whales.
One source said males over 65 feet have been reported. The big males can weigh 40 to 50 tons. Females get up to 35 feet long and can weigh 14 to 18 tons.

Sperm whale calves may start to take solid food when they are a year old, but they continue to nurse until they are at least five years old. Sometimes they nurse into their teen years!

The lower jaw can be opened very wide - to 90 degrees. The jaw can be over 3 meters long. The one pictured above is not a particularly big whale.
Until fairly recently the only time most people ever saw a sperm whale was when it was dead on the beach.

Inside every whale flipper (or pectoral fin, as the experts like to call it) is a cute collection of bones that look suspiciously like a human hand - complete even with thumb bones.

Take an eleven minute walk sometime. Imagine you're a sperm whale swimming straight down in total blackness during that time. With each step (or fluke stroke) the pressure increases. After just a few minutes your ribs have folded up and your lungs have collapsed completely - stop I can't go on! It's too spooky!
Flukes up, ready for a powerful downward thrust. The tail-flukes of the sperm whale are more flexible than most whale flukes. This may make them more efficient at slow speeds. The flukes are also the largest with respect to the whale's size of any cetacean.

Dear Greg,
How did you know we wanted to talk about whales?

The Sperm Whale - Multiple Record Holder
(see the World Records box in the left column)

     Whales are beautiful, mysterious, and some of them are really really big. One of the biggest is the sperm whale. I don't know if you can measure "mysteriousness" but if you could, the sperm whale would be one of the top contenders.
     They spend most of their time in a world that is more hostile and difficult for humans (and tortoises) to survive in than outer space. Even on the surface they usually hang out in deep water far from shore. All of which means they are darn hard to watch and scientists have more questions than answers about them. Nevertheless, they have managed to get some idea of approximately how deep some whales can dive. It seems likely from what we know, that of all the cetaceans, those that go the deepest are the mighty sperm whales.

Mind-Boggling Depths
     How deep do they go? And what's so hard about it?
     They go deep. Exactly how deep is not certain. But it's really deep (keep reading, we do have some numbers for you).
     Mind-boggling is the best word to describe how deep they dive. If no one had ever heard of Sperm Whales (or some of the other deep diving mammals) and you asked any sensible scientist or engineer to design an air breathing animal to dive several thousand feet into the ocean, they would tell you to forget it. Can't be done. "Impossible!" they'd shout.
     Well, as often happens, no one told the sperm whale not to go there. So they go, over and over again, every day. How they do it is wondrous. Let's explore this amazing feat.
(You're still waiting to learn how deep they go? Be patient.)

Diving with a Sperm Whale
     The very idea terrifies me, but let's go on a dive with a sperm whale.
     We start at the surface. Our sperm whale is getting ready to go hunting. Her hunting grounds are where the squid and other tasty sea creatures are bountiful - a world where the sun don't shine. Straight down. Way down. Into total cold crushing blackness.
     If our whale has just come up from a dive she first spends 10 minutes or more clearing her lungs, blowing a breath in and out every 12 seconds. She's getting rid of old carbon dioxide from the last dive and loading up with fresh oxygen. She's got to store up a lot of oxygen because she will be holding her breath for the next 45 to 60 minutes.  Most of the excess oxygen for the next dive will be stored in the huge powerful swimming muscles.
     Finally our whale is ready to dive. She takes two more huge gulps of air, points her head down, raises her flukes (tail fins) out of the water and dives straight down. Now she starts swimming straight for the bottom. She is swimming steadily (or gliding - new research indicates that many cetaceans, and other diving marine mammals, glide more than swim when they are going down) at 3 1/2 miles per hour (5.6 km/hr). This is a fast walking pace for humans. It is probably the most efficient speed for the whale. It is important to be efficient now. Swimming too fast would waste oxygen. Too slow would waste time.

     Down and down at 1 and 1/2 meters per second. It takes over a minute to go as deep as a football field. After 3 long minutes we are 270 meters (885 feet) below the surface and still a long way to go. It is getting cold and dark. There is some light down here but not much. I'm wanting to go back to the surface. There is almost 3 football fields of water above us. If my calculations are correct the pressure here is 355 pounds per square inch, or 24 atmospheres. There are over 51,000 pounds pressing on every square foot of the whale's body.
      This is already past the limit that a human diver breathing air can survive. If his rib cage hasn't collapsed from the pressure, it soon will. Why doesn't the sperm whale's rib cage collapse? It does. But the sperm whale's rib cage is designed to fold up and collapse. Also the lungs have collapsed and the air in the whale's body is squished to one forth of the volume it was on the surface. The whale's lungs will collapse completely before very long.

     After 3 minutes of not breathing most humans have passed out and, if they don't start breathing soon, are heading for another existence. But our sperm whale is just starting.

      She continues her journey downward, still going straight down. Now it is pitch black. No light, except possibly the bioluminescent glow of some of the deep sea creatures down here. How does she know which way is up? Echolocation? Or perhaps an unerring sense of gravity we don't have? Humans (and tortoises) would be hopelessly disorientated and confused.
     After five and a half minutes the whale reaches five hundred meters (1640 feet). Humans can live and work down here but it takes days of compression to get there and days of decompression to get back. It also requires a mixture of special gasses. The sperm whale does it over and over again several times a day. The pressure is now over 700 psi (48 atmospheres).

    After eleven minutes of steady swimming straight down, mostly in complete utter blackness, our whale reaches her happy hunting grounds. Now she is about 1000 meters (3280 feet or 3/5 of a mile) below the surface. Eleven football field lengths of water is above us. The pressure is 1421 pounds per square inch (almost 100 atmospheres). 200,000 pounds (100 tons) of water press on every square foot of the whale. All the time, day and night, winter and summer, the water temperature is 2 degrees celsius (36 degrees Farenheit).
     This is the typical hunting depth for a sperm whale. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 meters. For the next 20 to 40 minutes our whale will stay down here in the dark and cold, hunting and eating. There are many unanswered mysteries about what goes on down here, but alas, we must save them for another article.

     At this depth the air in the whale's body is one percent of its original volume, and it is 100 times more dense.

Finally a Maximum Depth - Sort Of, Maybe
     Is this as deep as they can go? Hec no.
     No one knows how deep they can go. We found a lot of different maximum depths listed at different web sites (be careful when you are surfing for "fast facts" - not everyone is as careful as we are - and even we make mistakes - at least check several sources - and books and libraries are still an important part of learning). The most reputable source told us that submarine sonar readings have documented sperm whales at 2500 meters (8200 feet or 27.3 football fields or 1.6 miles below the surface)! There were even deeper depths claimed at a couple of web sites, but we are inclined to be suspicious of those.
     So our answer to how deep a sperm whale can dive is about 2500 meters - maybe. But no one really knows. Who knows what a sperm whale could do if it was really trying?

Back to the Surface
     After spending 20 or 30 minutes catching and somehow swallowing a lot of fish and squid, our whale, still holding her breath, heads back for the surface. She could probably stay significantly longer, but the longer she stays down, the longer she will have to recover on the surface.
     She swims back up at about the same speed she came down, so it takes another 11 minutes or so. The deeper the dive, the longer it would take to get there and back. It would take over 27 minutes to reach 2500 meters (where the pressure is over 3500 psi).
      Is this another factor that limits how deep a sperm whale can practically dive? There must be a point of diminishing returns. The longer it takes to get to the tasty hunting grounds, the less time is available for hunting. A typical dive lasts 60 minutes. No one knows how long a sperm whale can hold its breath but estimates range from 90 minutes to 2 hours.

       What must it feel like to rise toward the surface. She can feel her body getting lighter, feel the pressure change from 100 atmospheres to 1 atmosphere, see the light coming (does it hurt her eyes), feel the air in her nasal passages and lungs expand to 100 times the volume it was at depth, and then, finally after an hour, she bursts to the surface and blows out all that old air, rich in carbon dioxide, followed by a huge gasp of fresh oxygen rich sea air. Is it a great relief? Or does she hardly notice? Just another day at the office.

     If a human spends much time diving at high pressure the tissues in his body become saturated with gas kept compressed and dense by the high pressure. If the diver comes to the surface too fast, the gas forms bubbles in the body which can cause serious harm and even death. This unpleasant condition is known as "the bends".  To prevent this, human divers have to decompress very slowly after a deep dive. The decompression process after a deep dive can take days. Sperm whales go down to much deeper depths and back up several times a day. Some of the mechanisms that they use to avoid this problem are understood, some are not. (One big factor in the whale's favor is that they are holding their breath while human divers are breathing compressed air. Record holding deep diving humans, holding their breath and being pulled down quickly by weighted "sleds", have shown they can go deeper than scientists had previously thought possible. But that is a good subject for another page.)  

     There are many adaptations that we know sperm whales have made to allow them to dive to such remarkable depths. There are probably many other adaptations scientists have not even guessed yet.

More Dr G on Whales:
Whale Bones

Whale Links

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Answer to Question "What's wrong with this Picture?"
The picture shows a whale with teeth in the top and bottom jaws. Most sperm whales only have teeth in the bottom jaw. Some males have a few teeth in the upper jaw but nothing like what's shown in the picture.

The lower jaw usually has 20 to 25 pairs of large (10 inches [25 cm] long) teeth. One source suggests the teeth are more for fighting amongst males or for defense than for eating. Young sperm whales often don't sprout teeth until some time after they have started feeding themselves. In some females the teeth never come out.

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