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Name: Roger W Malone
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Question:
Could you tell me why the Sperm whale is called a Sperm Whale?



Replies:
Pretty much as you'd guess. The head of the sperm whale contains a huge bony container that is filled with a white viscous liquid composed of oil and a white waxy substance called spermaceti ("sperm of whale" in Latin, "cetus" being Latin for "whale"). Early on people thought the spermaceti was the whale's sperm, no doubt from its appearance, and the name stuck even after people knew better. I'm not sure there's agreement even today on what the whale DOES do with the stuff, though. Last I heard the idea was the whale focussed sound waves through it to stun its prey, which explains how the young whales can eat, since they supposedly don't grow any teeth until they're ten years old. The sperm whale diet is principally squid, and they can hold their breath for an hour at a time and dive deeper than most submarines to find them.

Sperm whales were hunted for centuries for their oil and the spermaceti. "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville, which you mentioned, is indeed about hunting sperm whales, and gives you a feeling for what it's like to do this (not nice). It's a wonderful book, but difficult to understand and appreciate.

Christopher Grayce



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