The Naming of Things: Sperm Whales

It’s that time again. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and the sperm whales are… blowing! So, let’s uncover the deeper meaning behind that loaded name.

Sperm Whale breaching
Photo by Whale Watch Western Australia

The common name Sperm Whale does not, in fact, have anything to do with the Sperm Whale’s sperm (or any whale’s sperm for that matter). What the name actually refers to is the waxy liquid found in the sperm whale’s melon (forehead) which is called spermaceti. Though, to be fair, when this substance was first discovered it was thought to be the sperm whale’s sperm so, ya.

As for the scientific name, Physeter macrocephalus, this also has nothing to do with what we now think of when we hear the term “phalus.” The genus name is the Greek “physeter” which was used to refer to a whale’s blowhole and the species name comes from the Greek “makrokephalos” which meant “big head.” Putting all the pieces together you get something like “big headed whale with a blowhole.” I suppose that, at least, is accurate!

Sperm Whale Fluke
Photo by Ashley Keegan

While Sperm Whales may be most notable for their unusual name, they are the largest of the toothed whales species and can dive to depths of over 2 kilometers! Read all our whale tales about them here and submit your encounter with any cetacean species here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.