The young Herman Melville wrote in his now legendary novel about the fierce and powerful, white whale Moby Dick in 1852. Melville was inspired by Captain George Pollard's account of the 1820 sperm whale attach on the whale ship Essex in the South Pacific and by the tales of the ferocious white sperm whale of the S-Pacific called Mocha Dick.
Whether the boat was really attached and sunk by a whale remains a mystery. In his account of the event, Captain Pollard was to have claimed that the boat had been frequently menaced by whales at night with one incident of a killer whale attach. This behaviour is not commonly witnessed in the wild though there are few incidences of whales breaching out of the water and landing on an unfortunate smaller vessels. If the whale hasn't been harassed, it is unlikely an intentional act since such a stunt could be life threatening to the whale.
Mocha Dick was encountered by many whalers in the early 19th century. When killed in 1838 around 19 harpoons were found in his body. Despite of the number of unpleasant encounters with blood thirsty whalers, tales tell that he was quite docile and sometimes swam alongside ships. But when agitated or attacked, he would respond fiercely and cunningly. When Mocha Dick was finally killed he was seemingly coming to the aid of a female sperm whale whose calf had just been slain by the whalers.
A contemporary naturalist, Thomas Beale, was working as a surgeon aboard a whale ship. In his 1839 book about the natural history of sperm whales he wrote: "a most timid and inoffensive animal readily endeavouring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance". Beale describes a behaviour more commonly witnessed by sea-farers and scientists today. Of course, sperm whales are not commercially hunted today (commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but a remote Indonesian village is one of the few places still hunting whales using traditional methods) and thus not directly threatened by humans. Only indirectly, such as by shipping, by-catch and entanglement. Therefore, they should be less likely to respond aggressively to non-threatening vessels.
A recent study has shown that sperm whales have a particularly strong long term memory, remembering the interaction history with other whales over very long periods of separation. Therefore, an individual would remember a previous tragic event such as an attack on itself or other group members and could thus respond aggressively when faced again with similar threat.
Sperm whales are quite the magnificent creatures, for sure ill tempered when threatened but clearly show great affection and devotion to their family members.
Finally, the whales whitish appearance! Fact or fiction?
Albinism is actually a very well known phenomenon among whales as among most other animals and even plants. In 2008, a published report stated that 21 albino (or anomalously white) cetaceans had been reported. These species were e.g. humpback whales, a bottlenose dolphin, sperm whales, and a southern right whale. Since then, more "white-whales" have been added to the list, e.g. a white harbor porpoise off NE-Scotland, a killer whale near Russia’s Kammchatka Peninsula and a humpback whale off N-Norway.
Albinism is due to congenital absence of any pigmentation in the animal. Naturally occurring albinism is quite rare but both parents need to carry the recessive albino allele c for the chance of having an albino young.
The cost of albinism for marine mammals may include reduced heat absorption in cold waters, poor camouflage and increased sensitivity to sunlight. Also, albino mammals generally have a poor vision. Despite these costs some albino whales seem to reach adult stages. A white sperm whale killed near the Azores in 1902 was reported to be 27 m (90 ft) and around 100 years old.
Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir
Marine Biologist and whale specialist at the University of Iceland