The sperm whale is easily the most popular whale species there is and has been both, revered and feared for centuries. In fact, the world-renowned Moby Dick is a sperm whale!
Regrettably with fame and exposure also come threats which lead to the important question you and I have today: are sperm whales endangered?
Technically sperm whales are not endangered as their official listing by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is “vulnerable”.
This doesn’t mean they are in the clear and these whales still have a long way to go in order to have stable populations.
Join me today as I explore the past and current population status of the sperm whale, discover how many are currently left in the wild, determine the current threats this species is facing, and learn how you and I can help save these magnificent animals.
Are Sperm Whales Currently Endangered?
Before any sailor encountered a sperm whale in the ocean, the impressive sightings of stranded whales, with their huge size, intimidating teeth, and sometimes badly mutilated bodies inspired all kinds of legends and folklore around the unknown lives of these “sea monsters”.
If you ask me, I don’t think you or I can really judge these people, the sight of the largest toothed predator in the world is not something that can be easily dismissed, especially when you know absolutely nothing about it and the threats it can pose.
Unfortunately for the sperm whale, fear quickly turned to greed as it was discovered that inside their colossal heads rested spermaceti, an extremely valuable oil; with this discovery, the incessant hunt for these marine giants began.
Sperm whale populations were decimated by the commercial whaling industry between 1800 and 1987 and although these cetaceans came close to the brink of extinction they are currently not endangered according to the latest IUCN listing which catalogs them as being “vulnerable”.
The current listing for this marine mammal means that it’s facing a high risk of extinction and is very likely to become endangered unless threats to its survival improve. The IUCN is the worldwide arbiter regarding conservation and the most widely accepted standard.
However, the ESA (Endangered Species Act), which is strictly US based, has the sperm whale listed as endangered therefore granting it special legal protection in US waters. IUCN listings have no legal enforcement abilities in the US.
Why Are Sperm Whales Considered Endangered?
The ESA has the sperm whale listed as “endangered” so that it can legally protect it from anyone within the United States jurisdiction who kills, harasses, pursues, and/or harms it in any way.
This cetacean has been listed as “endangered” under the ESA since 1970.
In order to become a protected endangered species under the ESA a species must be threatened due to at least one of the following factors:
- Present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range.
- Over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
- Disease or predation.
- Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.
- Other natural or manmade factors that affect its continued existence.
What landed the stupendous sperm whale on this act is point number 2.
How Many Sperm Whales Are Left?
It is estimated that there are currently about 300,000 sperm whales swimming in our oceans.
It might seem like a big number but when you take into account that in pre-whaling days they numbered 1.1 million you’ll quickly realize their population is just recovering.
Internationally the sperm whale is protected under international whaling agreements and in the US by the ESA.
It is unknown whether their population is stable, decreasing, or increasing but scientists believe it is the latter.
Sperm Whale Threats
As you can imagine an animal so large and powerful has very few natural predators, but healthy adult sperm whales have virtually none.
However, calves as well as injured or weak individuals are preyed upon by orcas and large sharks.
The sperm whales have an interesting defense mechanism when it comes to defending themselves from predators, these whales are social and live in matriarchies of several females and their young.
When attacked by a predator they will arrange themselves into a “flower” formation with all their heads towards the center and their tails facing outwards.
Calves and weak adults are usually placed in the center of the formation surrounded and protected by the rest of the pod.
By being in this position whales can use their extremely powerful tails to fend off whatever predator is trying to hunt them at the moment.
The real threats though are all human-induced. As with most large cetaceans vessel strikes are believed to be the number 1 cause of death in these mythical creatures. Followed by entanglement in fishing gear and ingesting debris.
In 2019 a dead pregnant sperm whale washed up ashore on an Italian coast, the appalling sight found by veterinarians and biologists performing the necropsy was over 23 kg / 50 lbs. of plastic crammed into its stomach.
Ocean noise created by machinery, especially when oil rigging, makes it extremely hard for whales to properly communicate with each other.
Additionally, oil spills are also an important concern as it poisons both, whales and their prey.
And lastly, climate change. As with other marine life, climate change is affecting prey availability and distribution.
In the case of the sperm whale which eats around 2 tons of food per day, prey availability is of vital importance.
How Can We Help Save Sperm Whales?
There are a few things you and I can do to help sperm whales around the world. The most important thing to do is adopt the most sustainable lifestyle possible.
Also, choose companies with proven green practices, and beware of those guilty of “greenwashing”.
Other ways to help are to be a responsible “whale-watcher”. If you are ever lucky enough to witness sperm whales in their natural habitat keep the recommended distance, reduce the speed of the boat and enjoy the amazing sight without disturbing the beautiful giants.
Be mindful of the trash you create, try to reduce it as much as possible, and make sure when going to the beach you don’t leave behind anything but footprints!
If you know someone illegally harassing, hunting, or otherwise being disruptive to marine life, report the violation!
In the US you can contact NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) hotline: (800) 853-1964.
For the rest of the world, you can contact the IWC (International Whaling Commission) to report a violation.
Unfortunately, the sperm whale is another example of human greed and selfishness driving a truly epic animal to near extinction.
I can only hope that by reading this article and learning about this whale’s history you will do everything in your power to ensure the protection of all sea creatures.
Thank you for joining me today and I will see you next time!
I am a lover of everything nature and animal related with over 15 years of experience in the field of wildlife rescue and education. Currently living in Colombia working with wild and domestic animals and spending all my free time writing about them 🙂