Beached calf Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus), a
t Riis Park/ Fort Tilden, Queens Co., New York


Whilst birding at Riis Park on Sunday 5 January 2003, I noticed some State Park officials and police gathered at one end of the beach. Scanning past them I could see the black body and tail fluke of a beached whale and walked over to take a look. Sperm Whales are one of the easiest whales to identify. Even from a distance, the huge square head and single, off-center nostril are diagnostic. The whale had washed up during the night and was relatively fresh. The small size (20-25 feet) and poorly developed teeth indicate a calf. It is not clear how the animal had died. There were several lacerations on the tail and back suggesting it might have been struck by a ship, but it is possible there were made after it had washed up. Several neat square blocks of blubber had been excised and I hope these were for toxin analysis rather than as souvenirs. This was a sad but remarkable site.

As with adults, the inside of the mouth is white, whilst the tongue is brilliant red.

The blowhole is positioned at the front of the head and set well to the left of the midline. The significance of this asymmetry is unknown. One consequence is that bushy blow projects forward at a sharp angle and if seen head on, to the left of the animal.

The narrow lower jaw contains a series of peg-like teeth which fit into sockets in the upper jaw. The only other whales with narrow underslung jaws are Dwarf and Pygmy Sperm Whales. Both are much smaller than even a calf Sperm Whale and have a more prominent dorsal fin.

The dorsal fin is low and triangular and is followed by a series of bumps (crenulations) running along the ridge of the back. The flanks posterior to the head has an odd wrinkled texture, contrasting with the smooth skin of the rest of the body. The dorsal fin and crenulations are clearly visible when animals arch their back to dive and help identify the species even when the head is not seen well.

Females give birth once every four to six years and gestation lasts for approximately 18 months. At birth, calves are 10-15 feet long (3.5-5.0 m) and weigh approximately 2,200 pounds (1000 kg). They are nursed for several years and presumably develop a very tight bond with the mother. This underscores the tragedy of the situation. Calves are left at the surface when the mother dives which can be for as long as 60 minutes and perhaps calves are vulnerable to ship sites at this time?

Sperm Whales occur regularly in deep waters off New York, especially along the edges of submarine canyons (e.g. Hudson Canyon) and along the continental slope - some 70-90 miles from Long Island. Fortunately, Sperm Whales remain one of the most abundant of the large whales.


Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson
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