Science Says Sperm Whales Could Really Wreck Ships

Spoilers for “Moby Dick” to follow

“The ship? Great God, where is the ship?,” wondered the fictional sailors crewing Captain Ahab’s mighty Pequod, right after the legendary whale Moby Dick rammed the vessel, tearing it asunder. The sudden, apocalyptic climax of Herman Melville’s iconic novel is rich with meaning, and nestled inside it is a deep, enduring scientific question: Could a sperm whale like Moby Dick actually ram a ship apart, and survive?

The answer, according to research from Olga Panagiotopoulou at the University of Queensland, is a resounding “probably.” Together with Panagiotis Spyridis, Hyab Mehari Abraha, David R. Carrier, and Todd C. Pataky, Panagiotopoulou authored the awesomely titled study “Architecture of the sperm whale forehead facilitates ramming combat.” Published this week in the open access journal, PeerJ, the paper argues “the connective tissue partitions in the junk reduce von Mises stresses across the skull and that the load-redistribution functionality of the former is insensitive to moderate variation in tissue material parameters, the thickness of the partitions, and variations in the location and angle of the applied load.”

Or, in plain English, sperm whale heads are built for ramming. And while ships may be the most poetic target for whales, the likely origin of a strong head ram goes back to something far less literary and more straightforwardly Darwinian: male competition.

Normally, ramming is easy to see in wild populations, as males compete for mates. While it’s been observed at least once in the wild, finding enough behavior to prove a consistent pattern is hard, because the sperm whale population is at most a fraction of what it once was. Part of the reason is that the population lives mostly in deep water, far from human observation. Another reason is that, in a couple centuries, human whaling culled the population from a possible peak of over 1 million sperm whales to roughly 100,000 today. A waxy substance called spermaceti found within the heads of sperm whales was used first as lamp oil and later as industrial lubricants, and their blubber was used for soap and margarine. It turns out a couple centuries of being hunted by humans makes it a little tricky for scientific observation by humans.

Instead, the researchers looked to other factors, like the differences in size between male and female sperm whales. The males are three times larger, which is usually characteristic of species that compete to have several mates. Adding weight to their hypothesis is that the biggest difference between sperm whale sexes is in head length, which suggests that large male heads are used for something unique–like fighting.

All well and good, but the head had to actually stand up to the physical stresses of ramming. So they simulated several models of rudimentary whale heads, with components representing bone, squishy spermaceti, and soft tissue partitions in the part of the whale head called the “junk”. After testing and analysis, the researchers found

It’s not just that Ahab was destined for a watery grave. It appears Moby Dick was built to send him there.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.