Read This, Not That: The Auditory Life of Sperm Whales
The sperm whale is one of conservation’s success stories. Hunted near extinction for its spermaceti, the oily substance secreted from its head, the population has begun a slow recovery towards pre-whaling population levels. The end of whaling, however, has forced scientists to invent new ways to study the lives of these animals. Eric Wagner, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, uncovers how researchers use acoustic imaging to investigate the whales’ relationship with that other mythical giant of the deep, the squid.
The most celebrated natural antagonism between sperm whales and squid, conjuring up images of the Leviathan grappling with the Kraken in the abyssal trenches, almost certainly involves the jumbo squid’s larger cousin, the giant squid, a species that grows to 65 feet long and closely resembles the creature described in Moby-Dick. In the novel’s “Squid” chapter, Starbuck, the first mate, is so discomfited by a squid that floats up in front of the Pequod—“a vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre”—that he wishes it were Moby-Dick instead.
The nonfictional relationship between sperm whales and squid is pretty dramatic also. A single sperm whale can eat more than one ton of squid per day. They do eat giant squid on occasion, but most of what sperm whales pursue is relatively small and overmatched. With their clicks, sperm whales can detect a squid less than a foot long more than a mile away, and schools of squid from even farther away. But the way that sperm whales find squid was until recently a puzzle.