The Sperm Whale: Super Communicator

The Sperm Whale, largest of all the toothed species, is found in every ocean of the world. With the opportunity to join whale watching cruisesin the cetacean-rich waters of locations as diverse the Baja Peninsula, the Azores, Sri Lanka and Norway, nature lovers hoping for a close encounter with these massive marine mammals will not be disappointed.

Nature's Giant in Focus

The BBC's superb Blue Planet II nature documentary series features Sperm Whales in several episodes. One uses gripping footage of a whale carcass being torn apart by a feeding frenzy of sharks, and another contains the vision of a massive gathering of the cetaceans in Sri Lanka. But the episode that reveals the most about this mammoth ocean predator is episode 4, entitled Big Blue, in which Sir David Attenborough's team captured astounding footage of the way in which they use vocalisation to hunt and communicate.

Super Communicators

The Sperm Whale has the largest brain of any animal in the world and, even though they can't produce the haunting songs the Humpback is capable of, they use a unique series of clicking vocalisations, called "codas" for social calls, which work much like the principle of Morse Code. The Blue Planet II team captured mesmerising footage of them utilising this complex system of communication and echolocation clicks as they hunted for squid in deep water.

When they're hunting, the echolocation technique enables the whales to bounce sound off their prey, which then travels back through the ocean and back into their spermaceti, an organ inside their head filled with a waxy substance. Because sound travels five times faster in water than air, this echolocation allows them to decipher the size and location of their potential prey up to a kilometre away. Porpoises and dolphins also use this resourceful method of hunting; biologists believe it was developed by their ancient cetacean ancestors to compensate for the decreased effectiveness of other senses (like smell and sight) underwater.

Sperm Whales use the patterns of codas to communicate and identify clan members, and even coordinate childcare duties. The codas comprise just a handful of clicking patterns, but the most fascinating aspect is that, even if they live in reasonably close proximity, each pod uses the equivalent of a different dialect.

While previously it was thought they communicated as a single group (to connect with another group), biologists have now discovered that they can actually convey individual messages between members of the clan. To add even more intrigue, a mother uses a totally different pattern of clicks again when communicating with her calf. 

Expert LedWhale Watching Cruises

The opportunity of encountering these magnificent ocean giants in the wild on whale watching cruises is regularly cited as one of the top ten "bucket list" experiences. Whether it's in the beautiful Azores, Sri Lanka, the Sea of Cortez or close to the Arctic Circle in Norway, the dramatic vision of a whale breaching just metres away, or the sight of a far off blow piercing the surface of the ocean, never fails to stir the adventurous soul of a nature lover.

Author Plate 

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in whale watching. As a passionate lover of marine wildlife, Marissa chooses the expert-led whale watching cruises organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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