Watch to the end for an epic sperm whale encounter in Timor Leste. Once feared by sailors on the high seas, sperm whales hold a special place in human history. However, despite being the largest predator on the planet, these ocean giants are greatly misunderstood.
Episode 6: Sperm Whale: Largest Predator on the Planet
“In this episode, we take you to see the largest predator on the planet”
“Listen to them hunting in the deep And get pooped on by a giant sperm whale “
“My name is Bertie and this is Timor-Leste from Below “
“Straight out of a storybook, this is a sperm whale. Their name is derived from spermaceti a waxy substance found inside the whale’s noggin. A highly sought after product for use in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles, sperm whales were extensively hunted for centuries. “
“Made famous by the fictional and ferocious Moby Dick, sperm whales are actually gentle giants… Growing up to 20m long and with the largest brain of any animal, sperm whales are known to form strong social bonds between their family units. In an attempt to encounter one these beautiful behemoths myself, I met up with sperm whale ecologist and keen listener, Benjamin Kahn, off the coast of Dili. “
- AG: So Benjamin, what is this piece of kit we’re looking at here?
- BK: This is our directional hydrophone. So the hydrophone itself is sitting in the middle of this parabola, this dish. And that blocks sound from one end and amplifies it from the other so it directionalises the sound.
- AG: And what’s it used for?
- BK: The hydrophone basically is an acoustic census. A lot of the species that are out here are deep divers and so they are vocalizing underwater. There’s a variety of sounds and clicks and whistles that you can differentiate. Not all of them but quite a few different species use different sounds so you can kind of pinpoint them.
- AG: And is there anything unusual about how sperm whales click or communicate with each other?
- BK: Well an individual sperm whale has that sort of two, two clicks a second, it’s like this acoustic strobe, this underwater flash that lights up the deep. When they’re searching for squid.
- AG: So they can actually use these noises to locate their prey.
- BK: Correct, yes.
- AG: That’s amazing.
- BK: With sperm whales, there’s a creaking door, where there’s this regular clicking that can go on for half an hour, or a regular dive is about 40-50 minutes. But when there is good foraging down there you will hear that frequency increase – click, click, click, click, click and that pitches up. So that’s kind of like a creaking door. And then it will stop. Because it’s tracking an individual squid. So it’s going “I got you”… Snap. The whole thing will stop, you can almost hear them swallow – like mmmm that was a nice one, juicy squid.
- AG: And you can tell all that with this piece of equipment?
- BK: Correct.
- AG: Can I see how it works?
- BK: Let’s have a go. If you wanna hold it that’s ok.
- AG: Yeah, yeah, can do. Benjamin the suspense is killing me, are you hearing anything?
- BK: Not yet – just ocean. Waves. Alright Bertie you want to have a go?
- AG: Yes, desperately.
- BK: Just listen to 90 degrees, and then so in four twists you will do a full circle.
- AG: I can definitely hear some clicks coming from that direction.
- BK: Towards the north. That’ll be a single whale.
- AG: Yeah, have a listen. Is that a sperm whale?
- BK: Yeah there could be a few down there.
- AG: Really?
- BK: Yes these are typical foraging clicks. So there are two very regular two clicks a second and they’re over towards the north. These guys are hunting for squid.
- AG: So we now know that there are definitely sperm whales here.
- BK: Sperm whales in Timor-Leste waters yes, in the Ombai strait, this migratory passage, this migratory corridor that’s so full of life.
- AG: Yeah, add them to the long list of other animals that are here.
- BK: Yeah the species list keeps growing and we’ve just started. Eventually we searched for so long that Benjamin had to leave, to go eavesdrop on some other cetaceans. But then a few days later we struck gold… We haven’t got one sperm whale, we haven’t got two sperm whales, we have got six sperm whales that we just in the water with. Unfortunately didn’t get very close to them but we know that they’re around here. Just got to manoeuvre in the right position, drop in front of them and then wait. No luck then, and they’re very, very aware of where we are. And then, saw us in the water, just maneuvered in another direction. So we try again. AG: Oh yeah one there.
- AG: No!
- WFG: No, not yet… Noooo!
- AG: It’s fluked. It’s fluked, it’s dived.
“And sperm whales can hold their breath for a long, long time so we might be waiting here a while. So the whale keeps surfacing and it’s up for quite a long time. Clearly used to our presence, doesn’t seem too bothered by us at all. And this is an animal that has got the largest brain of any animal to have ever lived and you can see it in its behaviour. “
“It keeps spy-hopping. So that means that it’s trying to catch a glimpse of us topside, catches us out the corner of its eye and thinks “eh you know maybe I might not hang around, I’m going to dive now”. But really cool to see that sort of behaviour. The sperm whale is at the surface, seems quite relaxed. So now we’ve just got to maneuver into position, hopefully get slightly ahead of him, drop, and then wait for the whale to come to us. “
“My heart is just thumping out of my chest. If they could take a giant squid, I’d be like a little hors d’oeuvres. And then once we’re in the water we have to stay as calm as humanly possible – which isn’t good because I get very overexcited and I fin and squeal a lot. So I’ve got to try and keep a lid on it and be Zen. Alright guys we’re getting in a good position look at this. Woooooo! Get in! Oh my God it stinks! It just took a poop on me! “
“A sperm whale, it nearly swam into me and he was right behind me, and he took a photo of the two of us together and then it did a poop on my head! But I don’t care because that was amazing. Absolutely sensational! “
“Possessing an in-built sonar squid detection system, the largest brain of any animal, and an awe-inspiring amount of grace and majesty. The spectacular sperm whale is surely one of our ocean’s most incredible inhabitants. And with a global ban on commercial whaling, hopefully, now these gorgeous, gentle giants are able to roam the seven seas in peace. Making encounters like this one, a real possibility. “