A Gathering of Giants

It was late afternoon and the sun was low in the sky.

I had spent the entire day, and many days prior, scanning the horizon for signs of life. My small boat bobbed up and down in the swell. Every now and then, a wave crest slapped its fiberglass hull, creating a resounding clap and shooting a curtain of spray skyward.

The shimmering glare of reflected tropical light was overwhelming. I squinted and rubbed my eyes, as a haze of brine and dissolved SPF 50 blurred my vision. When a faint puff of condensation shot into the air on the horizon, I thought it was a mirage, an artifact of fatigue and my compromised senses. But when I saw a second, I knew there was only one thing it could be—the exhalation of a surfacing whale. Excitedly, I counted a third, then a fourth, a dozen… no, hundreds!

That’s how I came to witness a phenomenon few have ever seen before. Skimming over the waves, I stopped the boat a short distance from where I had seen the whales’ last blow and slipped quietly into the sea.

I could scarcely believe my eyes.

Spread across many square kilometers, this large cluster of sperm whales was part of an enormous gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals and family groups that were actively engaged in a frenzy of physical contact and biosonar communication.   

Spread across many square kilometers, this large cluster of sperm whales was part of an enormous gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals and family groups that were actively engaged in a frenzy of physical contact and biosonar communication. 

 

Hundreds of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) swam to and fro, their huge bodies elegantly twirling and twisting through the water as they socialized and communicated. Bumping, jostling, and rubbing themselves against one another, they were exuberantly tactile — their behavior appeared almost euphoric. I felt rather like a gatecrasher at a wedding, so obvious was their delight in each other’s company.

Part of the vast gathering of sperm whales, this family group made up of dozens of individuals clicked, blew bubbles, rubbed their bodies against one another, dived to forage for food, and defecated almost continuously.   

Part of the vast gathering of sperm whales, this family group made up of dozens of individuals clicked, blew bubbles, rubbed their bodies against one another, dived to forage for food, and defecated almost continuously. 

 

As my eyes took in this secret spectacle, my ears were assaulted by a cacophony of excited whale chatter. Creaking and crackling, clicks, buzzes, and pops permeated the water as the whales pinged one another with sound. Pulsating rhythms pregnant with meaning penetrated the fibres of my body. I “felt” the connection between the congregated cetaceans as powerfully as I heard it. Moving together in groups several dozen strong, the whales occasionally descended to deeper water, but largely stayed near the surface, giving me a privileged view.

An inquisitive sperm whale calf approaches, buzzing me with biosonar. The calf was part of a family group of several adult females and three juveniles.  

An inquisitive sperm whale calf approaches, buzzing me with biosonar. The calf was part of a family group of several adult females and three juveniles.

 

Watching carefully, I noticed that two other activities added to the commotion — sloughing of skin and defecation. Like other whales, sperm whales shed skin on a regular basis. It is thought that this may be a mechanism to reduce the risk of infection and to rid the animals of external parasites. As the whales rubbed against one another, the physical contact dislodged flakes, sometimes entire sheets, of skin, which floated in the water like a blizzard of translucent dandruff.

Group defecation also seemed to play a prominent role at this gathering. When a dozen or more whales defecated simultaneously, it created a cloud of poop that engulfed the ensemble, obscuring them from view and turning the seawater into an oily soup.

Although the reason for such behavior is not entirely understood, recent research suggests defecation by large marine mammals plays a vital role in the ocean’s nutrient cycle. Sperm whales, for instance, consume deep-dwelling squids. They then defecate near the ocean surface, releasing iron and other nutrients. This, in turn, supports plankton blooms that help to mediate the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere.

Sperm whales defecating while engaged in a massive social gathering. Defecation like this is common in sperm whale social gatherings, as is the shedding or ‘sloughing’ of skin, which further clouds the water in this shot.  

Sperm whales defecating while engaged in a massive social gathering. Defecation like this is common in sperm whale social gatherings, as is the shedding or ‘sloughing’ of skin, which further clouds the water in this shot.

 

To gain a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to such spectacular aggregations of sperm whales, we need first to consider some basics of the species’ biology and social structure.

Sperm whales are mammals and live in almost every major ocean, including tropical and temperate waters. They breathe air and are warm-blooded. Yet they spend the majority of their lives in deep, dark, cold water foraging for food, often diving to depths of 800 meters or more in the process. It helps to think of them not as air-breathing animals that dive, but as creatures of the deep that occasionally visit the surface to breathe. In other words, the opposite of how humans relate to the ocean.

Unlike other whales, such as humpbacks, whose existence as it relates to food is best described as feast or famine, sperm whales forage constantly. But the ocean is a big place, and much of it is a nutritional desert, so they are most often found where there is abundant prey. They dine primarily on squid, although they have been known to eat fish and octopuses. These days, they also occasionally mistake plastic for prey.

A dead Ancistrocheirus lesueuri squid, a cephalopod typically found at depths between 200 and 1000 meters. An important part of the sperm whale’s diet, this specimen was found at the surface, floating upside down, but it’s not known what killed this individual.

A dead Ancistrocheirus lesueuri squid, a cephalopod typically found at depths between 200 and 1000 meters. An important part of the sperm whale’s diet, this specimen was found at the surface, floating upside down, but it’s not known what killed this individual.

Sperm whale society is structured along matrilineal lines, with adult females and their offspring forming the basis of a social unit. Such units typically comprise a dozen or more individuals, though average numbers and unit structures vary across ocean basins. Female offspring generally stay with their social units, while males leave as they mature, striking out to form loose groups with other young males. Together, they seek out prey in the nutrient-rich waters of higher latitudes.

A curious adult sperm whale hanging just below the ocean surface, with two other members of her family group just visible. Note the whitened area around her mouth, typical of sperm whales, and also the teeth of her lower jaw. They do not have teeth in their upper jaw.

A curious adult sperm whale hanging just below the ocean surface, with two other members of her family group just visible. Note the whitened area around her mouth, typical of sperm whales, and also the teeth of her lower jaw. They do not have teeth in their upper jaw.

Recent research suggests that sperm whales organize their societies and keep tabs on one another using sound. Each individual uses its own “voice,” or acoustic signature, to identify itself, and each social unit uses a set of unique sounds, called codas, that are distinct from those used by other units. Going even further, multiple sperm whale social units that have similar codas, or “vocal dialects,” and socialize from time to time, are known as clans. These larger groupings of sperm whales, which can comprise many thousands of individuals scattered across vast regions of ocean, maintain a sense of extended group identity and long-term association through the use and recognition of similar codas.

Sperm whales appear to use acoustical hierarchy to establish identity on at least three levels — self, family, and extended group.

An adult female sperm whale—the dominant member of this group—carries a large piece of a giant squid brought up from the deep trench below. Members of the family played with leftover bits of the squid, shredding their meal, perhaps part of weaning the calf.

An adult female sperm whale—the dominant member of this group—carries a large piece of a giant squid brought up from the deep trench below. Members of the family played with leftover bits of the squid, shredding their meal, perhaps part of weaning the calf.

In light of these insights around communication and social structure, the factors that likely contributed to the incredible congregation of sperm whales I encountered that day become easier to understand.

Sperm whales tend to be found wherever the hunting is good—and so, predictably, I spotted the aggregation in a location with abundant squid prey. They are also highly social—and so an encounter involving multiple social units in a given clan produces a riot of sound and energy. It was, in a sense, a vast reunion with plenty to eat and communicate about. But why was a cetacean convention of such magnitude being held?

The short answer is, we don’t know.

Other social animals also engage in occasional, large, communal gatherings. Elephants, for example, have matrilineal social units and extended clans similar to those of sperm whales. During the dry season, large numbers of elephants aggregate around sources of water and families may take the opportunity to socialize.

But while there are many potential parallels between sperm whale gatherings and those of elephants, there isn’t enough data or even anecdotal observation at this stage for scientists to draw meaningful conclusions about sperm whale get-togethers.

Their exact purpose remains a mystery.

A family of sperm whales engaged in intense social activity, including a great deal of physical contact between individuals, and biosonar communication.

A family of sperm whales engaged in intense social activity, including a great deal of physical contact between individuals, and biosonar communication.

It is tempting to speculate that sperm whale gatherings like this may have been much more common in the days before industrialized whaling decimated their numbers. W.D. Boyer reported coming across an enormous gathering of sperm whales in Peru in 1945, just before the escalation of large-scale whaling. He wrote: “… the entire ocean, to all visible limits of the horizon, seemed spotted with them. The sum total was a school of gigantic proportions… It took the vessel nearly an hour to travel through the main body of the school…”

Although commercial hunting of sperm whales began in the 18th century, the majority of reported kills took place between 1950 and 1980 when harpoon guns became more widely used. Whaling records show that more than 638,000 sperm whales were killed during this period. Today, population estimates for sperm whales fall in the range of 300,000 to 400,000, significantly down from more than a million whales worldwide before large-scale hunting began in the last century. Sperm whales are currently classified on the IUCN’s Red List as Vulnerable.

Two sperm whales surface in close proximity to a large commercial container vessel traveling at speed through a commercial shipping lane. Despite important gains in whale conservation efforts, lethal ship strikes continue to take a heavy toll on many whale populations.  

Two sperm whales surface in close proximity to a large commercial container vessel traveling at speed through a commercial shipping lane. Despite important gains in whale conservation efforts, lethal ship strikes continue to take a heavy toll on many whale populations.

 

Large-scale industrialized whaling ended relatively recently. Because sperm whales reach sexual maturity at a late age—around 10 years for females and up to 20 years for males—and because they produce few young, their recovery has been slow. But perhaps given time and steadily increasing populations, these large aggregations will occur and be documented more often.

Today, although widespread hunting is no longer an issue, sperm whales still face a litany of threats. Ship strikes cause terminal injuries, fishing gear strangles and entangles them, and ingested plastics block their guts, causing them to starve with full stomachs. 

Earlier this year, when thirteen sperm whales beached themselves in Germany, researchers found plastic garbage in the stomachs of four of the dead whales. Trash ingested by the dead sperm whales included a nearly 13-meter-long (43-foot-long) shrimp fishing net, a plastic engine cover, and the remains of a plastic bucket. Though most people have never seen a sperm whale, the byproducts of our modern societies often reach marine mammals without our knowledge, and can have devastating effects.

An aggregation of sperm whales engaged in social activity. This large gathering persisted for two days.

An aggregation of sperm whales engaged in social activity. This large gathering persisted for two days.

Humans have a long and checkered history with sperm whales. In the past, we feared them. We hunted and killed them. It is only relatively recently that we have taken the time to try to get to know them.

What we have learned is that far from being fearsome monsters intent on destroying ships, sperm whales are in fact highly intelligent creatures with complex social and cultural bonds, mediated by behavioral nuances that rival our own. And yet so much about them remains a mystery, including their spectacular and secret mass gatherings.

The fact that we understand so little about such large and magnificent animals as the sperm whale, despite our shared history and planet, leads one to wonder what else we don’t know about life in the ocean.

A curious family of sperm whales, comprising several adult females and three juveniles. The prominent white stripes on the surface of the adult in the foreground made it relatively easy to distinguish this family unit from the many dozens of others gathered nearby.

A curious family of sperm whales, comprising several adult females and three juveniles. The prominent white stripes on the surface of the adult in the foreground made it relatively easy to distinguish this family unit from the many dozens of others gathered nearby.

PARTING THOUGHT

It is probably obvious that sperm whales have been, and continue to be, an important part of my life. From my first encounter, when a sperm whale hit me with biosonar and then took me into its mouth, I have been hooked. 

That whale changed the course of my life.

I am always keen to share the experiences that I have had, the things that I have learned, and to discuss the questions and mysteries that remain.

I am deeply troubled however, by the rapid increase in people who lead and go on trips to seek encounters with whales, without having any knowledge about the animals, or any demonstrable concern for the animals’ welfare.

In March 2016, I watched an armada of speedboats chase a social unit of sperm whales that had just surfaced from a deep foraging dive. The boats zoomed around each other, throwing tourists in willy-nilly, while other boats raced to do the same, paying no heed to the people already in the water.

After an extended deep dive, the sperm whales needed to replenish their air supply. Instead they were forced down after only 10 breaths by the swarm of reckless boats, carrying ignorant, selfish trip leaders who were happy to choke the whales for the sake of a photo and bragging rights. Interfering with a whale’s breathing cycle causes the animal considerable distress. Yet each time the whales surfaced to breathe, the boats cut them off. Over and over.

Wanting no part of the mayhem and harassment, my friends and I moved our boat to another location and waited. The whales eventually showed up, electing to escape the hordes, as I had thought they might. I asked my friends to count the number of breaths the whales took when they were not disturbed. The first one that came up from a deep dive took 54 breaths.

10 versus 54. That is quantification of harassment.

Please do not be one of those ugly tourists.

Should you decide to watch whales from a boat, or to enter the water where permitted, do your homework on the operator, consider the ethics carefully, and above all, please behave with the best interests of the animals at heart.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

Learn more about responsible whale watching here.

A version of this story was originally published over on Biographic, with help from Sophie Stafford.

Explore more of the author's work at tonywublog.com

TONY WU

Internationally recognized professional underwater photographer. Equal parts nature/marine biology geek, visual art lover, technophile, hopeless dreamer, vagabond, and photography nut.