Sperm Whales Can Indeed Ram Ships to Pieces

"sperm whale"

The study should have started with “Call me Dr. Olga Panagiotopoulou”, but doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

While many people aren’t really fond of Moby-Dick because it was a mandatory book, the truth is that if you actually give it a try now you might end up enjoying it a lot more than you’d think. Of course, the writing remains the same stylistic, archaic type, but if you really pay attention to the adventures of the seafaring whalers you might end up impressed with their adventures.

But while the book approaches the mythical white whale by surrounding in an air of metaphors and symbolism, it was actually inspired by a true story that happened in 1820, when a sperm whale was reported to have utterly destroyed a whaling vessel.

Of course, this garnered a lot of attention at the time, leading to the writing of both Moby-Dick and a more contemporary novel which was recently adapted for the silver screen, In the Heart of the Sea. There was one thing both stories got right about the cetacean nemesis – it was a sperm whale.

Still, even after all this time, nobody actually checked the scientific accuracy of whether a sperm could actually be capable of such destruction. That is until recently, when a team of researchers from the University of Queensland determined that sperm whales can indeed ram ships to pieces.

Even though given their mass and size – males reach up to 50 feet in length and 45 tons in weight – it might seem like the question is moot, there was in fact room for discussion. And unless you’re familiar with cetacean biology, let me go over that real quick.

You see, sperm whales, as with most other species of whale, communicate via acoustic waves. About a third of the sperm whales’ length is composed of their head, which houses some very important organs, including the two oil sacks – the spermaceti organ and the junk sack – and the organs that help them navigate and communicate with each other.

The theory was that if the whales were to ram ships with their heads, something in there would get dislodged and leave them impaired for life. But that didn’t account for the fact that sperm whale males are known to get into fights by ramming each other in order to get females.

According to the study’s lead author, University of Queensland’s Dr. Olga Panagiotopoulou, the oil sacks, the reason for which they are hunted, are exactly what allow them to ram ships to smithereens:

Our findings show that connective tissue partitions within the junk of the sperm whale forehead may function as a shock absorber. This mechanism is important to reduce impact stress and protect the skull from failure. The mechanical advantage of the junk’s structure may be the result of selection and acquired traits related to male-to-male aggressive behavior.

Image source: Flickr