Confession: I was today years old when I found out how the sperm whale got its name.
Did you know already? If so, feel free to skip this post entirely. But if not, carry on reading. Or should I say, dive in?
Okay. So, sperm whales have a really big head. And inside that head is the biggest brain of any animal on the planet. But there’s something else hiding in that humongous noggin.
Yeah, I know.
About 300 years ago, whalers discovered a large organ in the giant mammal’s head containing a white liquid, which they mistakenly identified as sperm. Now, I can’t comment on the intelligence of these whalers (why anyone would ever think a mammal’s sperm is located in its head is beyond me). But they were sure industrious! The whalers quickly learned that this milky substance could be cooled into a wax, made into candles, ointments, cosmetic creams and more, and then sold for a pretty penny (as they say). Spermaceti was soon a hot commodity.
Apparently, no one seemed to mind that they were keeping their skin moisturized with what they thought was whale sperm. But never mind. Different times.
And in any case, it’s now common knowledge that this sticky fluid is not, in fact, sperm. (That stuff’s located just where you would expect it to be in a whale’s body. Surprise, surprise.)
So what is spermaceti then?
Well, scientists aren’t really sure. But one popular theory is that the substance, which hardens as it cools, helps alter the whale’s buoyancy during deep dives in the cold blue sea. Sperm whales are known to routinely dive to depths of over 3,000 ft. (900 m), remaining under water for up to 90 minutes at a time as they hunt for food. A fairly impressive feat, no?
Animal adaptations are an awesome thing. Even if they sometimes involve a slightly gross sperm-like substance.