The Beacon: Shane Gero's blog

Guest Post: Following a Family of Sperm Whales

sperm whales

Sperm whale Fingers nurses her calf, Thumb. [Image courtesy Shane Gero.]

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Shane Gero is a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and a lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

I met Enigma when he was only a few months old. He was about three meters long and probably weighed over a ton.

That’s about average for a newborn sperm whale. When he reaches full size, in about 25 years, Enigma might be as long as 18 meters and weigh over 50 tons.

I have been following Enigma’s family since before he was born. I have spent literally thousands of hours at sea following them and about 20 other families of sperm whales which live in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

It has really been the first time that anyone has come to know these leviathans from the deep as individuals with personalities, as brothers and sisters or as mothers and babysitters, and as a community of families each with their own ways of doing things, their own dialects, and their own cultures.

Sperm whale relationships are very much like our social lives -- more so than many might like to admit. The main difference is the most obvious, they live in the ocean. You see, most of the ocean is actually dark. Only a thin layer at the surface gets any light from the sun. For a sperm whale, life is really in the darkness of the deep.

I jokingly call them “surfacers” rather than “divers” because an adult female, like Enigma’s mother Mysterio, will spend over 80 percent of her life in the darkness of the deep ocean feeding. She will only spend about 10 to 15 minutes of every hour in the part of the ocean that sunlight touches and where I can observe her interacting with other members of her family.

As a result, while Mysterio’s eyesight is good both above and below the water, her world is dominated by sound. Just like bats, sperm whales have evolved a system of echolocation to “see” in the dark. Their unique nose, which houses the most powerful natural sonar system, has allowed them to exploit the deepest parts of the ocean that very few other mammals can, and as a result has made them a significant part of the ocean ecosystem. Globally, sperm whales can eat as much squid as all of humanity’s fisheries combined.


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