Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: University of Kansas (April, 2011)
The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the World's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature, University Press of Kansas, 2011
Next in his program of "saving the oceans, one species at a time," Richard Ellis has chosen the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, probably the most fascinating animal on earth - or in the oceans.
Its name comes from the ludicrous misconception that the vast quantity of oil in its nose was the whale's seminal fluid - thus spermaceti ("seed of the whale") whale, later shortened to sperm whale. (Females, much smaller than males, also have an oil reservoir in their nose, but what was the seminal fluid doing in the female's nose?) But male or female, what a nose! It is the largest nose in the world, in a big male, reaching a length of 20 feet. In addition to all that oil, the whale's nose contains sacs, tubes, a single nostril (culminating in a single, off-center blowhole,) and a pair of lips - inside the nose. The function of these sacs, tubes, lips and the oil itself, is unknown, but they may somehow be connected with sound production. Sperm whales talk to each other in a language of bangs, clangs, clicks, creaks, snorts, and wheezes, but we don't have a clue as to what they're saying. They can also use the nasal apparatus to send out focussed sound beams that can kill or incapacitate their prey - squid, but not always giants - in the dark as much as a mile below the surface. (Sperm whales can hold their breath for and hour and a half.)
The sperm whale is the most infamous creature in American literature, transformed by Herman Melville into a white malevolence that rammed ships and killed those whalers with the temerity to hunt it. It was the primary object of the Yankee whale fishery, which harpooned them by the thousands for their oil, and their teeth, which were carved into scrimshaw. The high point of the sperm whale fishery was not the nineteenth century - it was the twentieth century. In the 1960s, Soviet and Japanese whaling fleets killed more sperm whales every year that the New Bedford of Nantucket whalers had killed in the entire history of their fishery.