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From Whaling to Whale Watching

The boat ride home on a whale watch can have many different moods. Sometimes you are coming down from your rush of adrenaline and are still so excited about all of the amazing whales you just saw. Sometimes you replay different moments in your mind over and over again. Sometimes you just need some water, a snack and a nap. But sometimes, you get lost in your thoughts as you look out on the water.

One topic I find myself always coming back to is how our view of whales has changed so much over the decades. I first traveled to Massachusetts to start an internship with WDC to study and watch whales. During my internship, I met people who had come from all over the world to this whale watching hot spot to see these amazing creatures.

It is wild to think it wasn’t that long ago that people were coming to Massachusetts not to watch whales, but for an opportunity to be a crew member on a whaling ship. The most famous whaling ship, the Essex, left out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, an island that is close by to our office here in North America.  The story of the Essex was memorialized in the book and movie In The Heart of the Sea and is believed to be the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

On November 20th, 1820, the Essex was rammed by a large male sperm whale and sunk shortly after due to the damage of the ship. As we near the 200 year anniversary of this incident later this month, it is a reminder to us about the amazing transition we have seen from whaling to whale watching.

Whaling still unfortunately takes place in some places around the world. WDC is working towards the day where whaling only exists in the history books...and occasionally in our reflective thoughts on the boat ride home from watching whales.

Since the Essex sunk 200 years ago, we have learned so much more about how incredible sperm whales are.

Here are five of our favorite facts we learned:

Sperm whales have large brains
Douglas Hoffman

Sperm whales have the largest brains in the animal kingdom! Their brains have more than 5 times the volume of our brains and weigh almost 20 lbs! For reference, the average human brain weighs 3 pounds so sperm whale brains are over 6 times heavier than ours.


Sperm whales have a huge head which account for up to a third of their overall body length. Besides their brain, their head also has a large cavity inside filled with yellowish fine oil called spermaceti. This oil was very valuable and is one of the reasons why they were the targets of whalers.

Image credit- Getty Images
Image credit- Getty Images

Sperm whales sleep vertically! All whales and dolphins are ‘voluntary breathers’ which means that they need to think about every breath that they take, even when they are sleeping. Many species sleep horizontally just below the surface, however sperm whales hang vertically in the water. They don’t sleep for hours in a row - scientists think sperm whales are sleeping only 10-15 minutes at a time.

Image Credit: Douglas Seifert
Image Credit: Douglas Seifert

Sperm whales are toothed whales, but only have teeth on their bottom jaw! They have 20-26 pairs of teeth and each tooth can weigh over 2 pounds. Even though they have teeth, they don’t use them to chew their food. Sperm whales love to eat squid, but catch them by suctioning them into their mouths.

Sperm whale

Sperm whales can really hold their breath! Although their dives average around 45 minutes, sperm whales can dive very deep to find their favorite food for up to two hours at a time. This means that they spend a lot of their time in the deep, dark waters relying only on their echolocation to navigate and find their food.

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