In 2005, in the small fishing village of Mkwiro, in Wasini Island, fishermen woke up to a rather bizarre spectre – a giant carcass of a whale stranded on the beach. The whale looked fairly intact.
No one seemed to know how it got there, the cause of death or what species of whale it was. Years later, from photographic evidence of that day, the whale was identified as the legendary Sperm Whale – in Kenya!
While the appearance of a sperm whale at a Kenyan beach is in itself spectacular, the traits of this animal are the focus of this article which I will explore 4 that make this marine carnival perhaps one of nature’s most mysterious great wonders.
1. The Origin of its Name is Strange
The mystery of the sperm Whale begins to unravel with its very name. It gets its strange name from the spermaceti organ located in its head that produces a white, waxy substance that was originally mistaken for sperm by early whalers. No one quite knows what role spermaceti plays but in the past it was used to make various oils and products such as transmission fluid, motor oil additives, pharmaceuticals and detergents.
2. It is Large in Every Sense of the Word
Living in groups of between 15 and 20 called pods, these toothed giants are by far the largest known mammals alive with equally the largest brain weighing up to 9 KG. They are known to dive to depths of 9,500 feet into the sea – earning them yet another world first for ‘deepest diving marine mammals on earth.’
Sperm whales produce a dark, waxy substance related to cholesterol known as ambergris which is produced in the lower intestines. Ambergris is thought to help protect the sperm whale from stings by the giant squid, its arch-enemy and its major source of food. It is used to produce perfumes and expensive high-end scents.
4. It Produces the Loudest Sound on Earth
Perhaps, by far, the most spectacular feature this ancient creature has is its ability to make what is regarded as the loudest sound on earth ever produced by a living organism. It does this in an equally spectacular manner to track its food through echolocation.
This sound is heard in the sea as a series of repeated ‘clangs’ travelling underwater at speeds of 5,000 KM per second over a distance of 60 M. With this sound, the sperm whale can determine the location, size and shape of its target from quite a long distance – truly phenomenal!
The sighting of a sperm whale in such shallow waters in Kenya has continued to be a puzzle. No other has ever been seen – it would seem this was the first and probably not the last. As to the cause of death, that too is a mystery – perhaps the low water volume could have led to its demise but what an amazing animal that honoured us with a visit – albeit posthumously!