Special Status Species
Sperm whale Photo: NOAA / AFSC Common name: Sperm whale
Scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus
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Range Habitat Movements
Abundance Natural History Threats
Conservation Research Gaps Recommended Actions
References Resources

Listing Status
Endangered Species Act (?)


Endangered (all stocks)

Critical habitat:

Not designated

Recovery Plan:


Five-year Status Review:


California Endangered Species Act (?)


Not listed

Marine Mammal Protection Act (?)


Depleted; Strategic Stock

Stock Assessment:

Updated annually1

World Conservation Union (IUCN) (?)


Vulnerable (world-wide)

Convention on International Trade in Enangered Species (CITES) (?)


Appendix I

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (?)


Appendix I, Appendix II

Geographic Range

Sperm whales occur in all deeper waters of the world’s oceans that are not ice-covered. The geographic distribution of this species varies based on age and sex of individuals. “Mixed” groups of mature females, calves and immature juveniles reside predominantly in tropical and temperate limited by the 15°C isobar and rarely range beyond 45-50° while the distribution of adult males – who travel either alone or in loose aggregations or “bachelor” groups – have a range that includes tropical, temperate and polar latitudes.2 Females and young reside in stable units of about 13 individuals; there is fission and fusion of these to form larger social groups, typically of 20 - 40+ individuals, but sometimes even larger aggregations of 100’s can be observed.3

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognizes two stocks of sperm whales in the North Pacific – an eastern and a western stock. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) considers there to be three discrete, non-contiguous stocks within the Pacific U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): 1) Alaskan waters; 2) waters around Hawaii; and 3) waters off California/Oregon/Washington.1

The geographic range of the CA/OR/WA stock is not well understood. Recovery in British Columbia, Canada, and Alaska of animals tagged in southern California4,5 suggest that the geographic range of this stock may extend into the waters north of Washington. Preliminary results of a NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) research program examining the population structure of sperm whales in the eastern North Pacific indicate the presence of genetic subdivision within this region.6 For example, there appears to be a strong north-south boundary between samples collected in northern waters off CA/OR/WA and samples collected in southern waters from the Gulf of California to Peru.7 A genetic east-west subdivision between samples collected in eastern waters off CA/OR/WA and western waters offshore of HI have not been found, but more samples are needed from the CA/OR/WA stock in order to better understand the strength of this pattern.6


This species has been observed in deep waters throughout the latitudinal extent of the Sanctuary (Figure 2).

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General: In general, sperm whales forage in meso- and bathypelagic habitats, particularly near the edges of banks, continental slopes, submarine canyons or other areas with steep drop-offs. They are often found in association with productive waters or areas with strong oceanographic features (e.g., upwelling centers, oceanographic fronts2). Habitat preferences vary by age and sex of individuals and appear to be influenced primarily by water depth. Females are typically found in deep waters (> 1 km deep) and rarely venture into the shallow waters over the continental shelf.2 Female groups also tend to be found in waters with a surface temperature greater than 15°C.2 The habitats used by males overlap with those used by female groups, but males may also venture closer to shore into the shallower waters over the continental shelf.2 In addition, males are often found in high latitudes and the largest males can be found in waters with surface temperatures close to 0°C.8

This species has been observed in the deep, offshore waters of the MBNMS. Though the Monterey submarine canyon brings deep-water habitats fairly close to shore, this species is not seen often in the Monterey Bay.

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Migration and Movements

Sperm whales swim at speeds ranging from 2.5 to 5.2 km/h9 but are capable of bursts of speed of up to 22 km/h.2 In summer, sperm whales tend to move into the higher latitudes of their range. In winter, groups of females/immatures/calves migrate closer to equatorial waters and sexually mature males may join the family groups at this time. In general, female groups appear to limit movements to home ranges of about 1,000-1,500 km.10,11 Males are much more mobile. They are known to move across, and sometimes between, ocean basins.10

Not much is know about the movement patters of sperm whales in the CA/OR/WA stock. Sperm whales can be found year-round off California12 and in all seasons except winter in Oregon and Washington.13 Tagging studies suggest that at least some individuals move throughout the entire geographic region of the stock. Individuals tagged off southern California in the winter were recovered off northern California, Washington, and British Columbia in spring/summer.4


Sperm whales can be found year-round off California. Forney and Barlow12 found that, within 150 nautical miles of shore, there was no significant difference in seasonal abundance. Rice4 noted that sperm whales were most abundant off the central California coast from early April until the mid-June and from the end of August to mid-November.

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Whitehead14 estimated that 24,000 sperm whales occur in the entire eastern temperate North Pacific, which included waters extending from the coast of North America west to waters east of the Hawaiian Islands. However, studies of movement patterns and genetic population structure suggest there is little to no connection between the CA/OR/WA population and the large populations of sperm whales occurring in areas to the west.6 Based on data collected in 1996 and 2001, the most recent estimate of the size of the sperm whale population in the 300 nautical mile zone off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington was 1,233.15 Abundance estimates for waters off British Columbia are lacking so it is likely that 1,233 whales is an underestimate of the total size of this population1 although present-day geographic stock boundaries are not well understood. The CA/OR/WA population is expected to have grown since the end of commercial whaling in 1987, but there is little evidence of an increasing trend in population size.1


There is no estimate of the number of sperm whales that annually use Sanctuary waters. Sightings of this species along the central California coast regularly occur in pelagic waters beyond the western border of the Sanctuary (Figure 2), and occasionally within Sanctuary boundaries in deep water over the canyon and off the continental shelf.

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Natural History
Click here to view the natural history information of this species.


Intentional take: Either under scientific research permits or by illegal whaling. Illegal whaling is unlikely in U.S. territorial waters, but may occur on the high seas or in territorial waters of other countries.

Entanglement in fishing gear: One sperm whale death has been observed in the CA/OR offshore drift gillnet fishery since the Take Reduction Plan began in 1997.1 Large whales, including sperm whales, may also occasionally swim away with a portion of the net following entanglement; the fate of these animals is generally not known.

Collisions with ships: Off the U.S. west coast between 1997 and 2001, no mortalities due to ship strikes were recorded.1 It is possible that whales struck and killed by fast moving vessels may sink and not wash ashore. Laist et al.28 found that sperm whales are one of the whale species most commonly hit by ships.

Acoustic disturbance: There is concern about the potential negative impacts to marine mammals of a variety of acoustic disturbances (e.g., noise from ships, aircraft, research boats, and military and industrial activities). 29 Noise can cause direct physiological damage, mask communication, or disrupt important migration, feeding or breeding behaviors. Active-sonar, specifically low frequency (100-500 Hz) and mid-frequency (2.8-3.3 kHz) active sonar used in military activities by the U.S. and other nations, is one sound source of particular concern.29 Studies have shown that seismic pulses and closely approaching research vessels alter sperm whale behavior and movement patterns.30,31

Habitat degradation (e.g., chemical pollution, oil pollution, marine debris): Any increase in offshore oil and gas development would increase both the potential of an oil or chemical spill and the amount of shipping traffic through sperm whale habitat. Another cause of stranding or mortality is the ingestion of marine debris, such as plastic bags, which may resemble squid or other prey species.2


MBNMS: No threats are unique to the MBNMS



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Conservation and Research

In 1986 sperm whales in the North Pacific were given complete protection under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Sperm whales are listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the CA/OR/WA stock is considered to be "depleted" and a "strategic stock" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Under the ESA and MMPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for management and recovery of sperm whales in U.S. waters. Even though it is required under the ESA, no recovery plan for this species has been prepared, nor has a recovery team been established.

As required under the MMPA, NMFS annually updates the Stock Assessment Reports for all strategic stocks. Current Stock Assessment Reports are available on the NOAA Office of Protected Resources website. The MMPA also requires the formation of Take Reduction Plans to reduce the incidental serious injury and mortality of marine mammals from commercial fishing operations. In 1997 NMFS implemented a Take Reduction Plan for Pacific Offshore Cetaceans to address incidental takes of cetaceans in the California/Oregon swordfish drift gillnet fishery. The plan included skipper education workshops and required the use of pingers and minimum 36 feet extenders. Since implementation, overall cetacean entanglement rates in the California/Oregon swordfish drift gillnet fishery dropped considerably.32

NMFS is responsible for implementing monitoring and conservation programs for all endangered cetaceans. On-going research and monitoring projects by federal scientists include:

Shipboard Cetacean Surveys (Lead Scientist: Jay Barlow, Coastal Marine Mammal Program, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC)). The abundance of cetaceans along the U.S. west coast (out to a distance of approximately 300 nautical miles) is periodically estimated from shipboard surveys. Most recently, surveys occurred in 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2005. These surveys are anticipated to continue every 4-5 years.33 The multi-year (2004-2006) SPLASH (Structure of Population, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) research program, though targeting humpback whales, is recording the distribution and abundance of other cetaceans as time allows.

Population Structure Studies (Lead Scientists: Barbara Taylor and Sarah Mesnick, SWFSC). Defining the geographic boundaries of North Pacific sperm whale populations is one of the main challenges for management. The primary goal of the population structure research group at the SWFSC is to determine stock structure within the eastern North Pacific and south to Peru using molecular markers. Though preliminary results indicate the presence of genetic subdivision within this region, low sample sizes (particularly in CA/OR/WA) have hindered progress. Additional samples, collected during recent central and eastern Pacific SWFSC cruises and through colleagues, are currently being analyzed.6 Results from genetic studies are compared with movement patterns of individual whales (determined using photo-id matches) to further understand the geographic boundaries of sperm whale populations.

Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program Network (Southwest Regional Stranding Coordinator: Joe Cordaro, SWFSC). The network consists of volunteer groups that respond to marine mammal strandings in different parts of the southwest region. Samples from stranded animals provide information on biological parameters, including age, length, reproductive condition, contaminant loads, stock discreteness, types of parasites or diseases, and cause of death. In addition to collecting data from stranded animals, this program assesses health trends, correlates health with available data on physical, chemical, environmental, and biological parameters, and coordinates effective responses to unusual mortality events.


CSCAPE - Collaborative Survey of Cetacean Abundance and the Pelagic Ecosystem (Principal Investigator: Karin Forney, NMFS-SWFSC). The 2005 shipboard cetacean survey was part of a collaboration with the National Marine Sanctuary Program called CSCAPE. The primary objective of CSCAPE was to combine the typical marine mammal assessment survey with fine-scale surveys within the boundaries of the five west coast National Marine Sanctuaries. A secondary objective was to characterize the pelagic ecosystem within the study area, through the collection of underway and station-based biological and oceanographic data, seabird studies, and acoustic sampling. A final objective was to conduct biopsy sampling and photo-identification studies of marine mammal species of special interest.

Beach COMBERS - Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (Project Leader: Hannah Nevins, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories). In 1997 the MBNMS began a beach survey program using trained volunteers to survey beached marine birds and mammals monthly at selected sections of beaches throughout the Monterey Bay area. Currently, the program monitors 45 km of beaches in the MBNMS. The program is a collaborative project between MLML, MBNMS, and other state and research institutions, with the specific goal of using deposition of beach cast carcasses as an index of the health of the sanctuary. The Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program Network is notified of all stranded or dead cetaceans so that data can be collected and the cause of the stranding event determined.


The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) is not required to have research and monitoring programs for sperm whales because this species is not listed as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. However, under the federal ESA, CDFG is required to decrease or eliminate negative impacts of state-managed fisheries on sperm whales. Currently, no state-managed fisheries are known to have a negative impact on this species.


The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the sperm whale as “Vulnerable” worldwide.  The sperm whale is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which includes species threatened with extinction and prevents trade of Appendix I species except in exceptional circumstances. In addition, this species is listed under Appendix I and Appendix II of the North American Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which includes migratory species that have been categorized as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range and would benefit significantly from co-operation between Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was signed in Washington D.C. on December 2, 1946. The purpose of the Convention is to provide for the conservation of whale stocks and the development of the whaling industry. The IWC has prohibited the taking of sperm whales in the North Pacific since 1986. Currently, the IWC has 57 member nations and all members, except Japan, have agreed to uphold the prohibition on take of sperm whales. However, Article VIII of the 1946 Convention gives member states the right to issue scientific permits, which allow take for research purposes. Article VIII requires that the animals be utilized once the scientific data have been collected. This requirement allows whale products to be sold in the commercial markets of the permitting country, but export of whale products is prohibited in most cases under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Between 2000 and 2005, 31 sperm whales were taken from the pelagic waters of the North Pacific by Japan under scientific permit.


CIMT - Center for Integrated Marine Technologies: Wind to Whales (Contact: Andrew DeVogelaere, MBNMS). The Monterey Bay - from Pt. Año Nuevo to Pt. Lobos and out to 122°05' west longitude - is the focal region of the CIMT Wind to Whales Program. This project, which began in 1997, is an interdisciplinary collaborative research project involving scientists and engineers from UCSC, NMFS, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Labs, MBNMS, and the Naval Postgraduate School. CIMT uses data collected via remote sensing, moorings and ship-board surveys to investigate linkages between: coastal upwelling, nutrient delivery, spatial and temporal variability in phytoplankton, and the distribution and abundance of organisms at higher trophic levels including squid, fishes, seabirds, sea turtles, pinnipeds, and whales. Monthly ship-board surveys and a bottom-mounted passive acoustic mooring system have the potential to detect sperm whales in this area.

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Research Gaps
  • More information is needed on the distribution, migration patterns, stock structure, abundance, and trends in abundance for all stocks in the North Pacific.34 Programs that could help fill this gap include:
      • MBNMS-wide aerial surveys to determine distribution and abundance of sperm whales in Sanctuary waters and to identify the location of important foraging habitat, if any, in the MBNMS. Recommended as a supplement to current monitoring efforts by NMFS.
      • Develop a broad-scale program to obtain biopsies and photos for mark-recapture abundance estimation. Use biopsies to determine the genetic variability within the CA/OR/WA stock and between this stock and the other North Pacific stocks. Telemetry studies are needed to assess daily and seasonal movements and inter-area exchange.
  • Determine the impacts of various types of acoustic disturbance that occur in the MBNMS, including noise from ships, boats, aircraft, and research, military and industrial activities.35


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Recommended Actions
  • Support a continued international ban on commercial hunting and other directed lethal take. Support efforts to detect and prevent illegal whaling and to minimize the number of animals taken for scientific research.
  • Reduce the threat of entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris, particularly fishing gear. Efforts should include education outreach to fishing industry, abandoned gear recovery, and entanglement/stranding response teams.36
  • If certain acoustical disturbances are found to negatively impact sperm whales, work to minimize those activities in the MBNMS.

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Cited References

1. Carretta JV, Forney KA, Muto MM, Barlow J, Baker J, Lowry M (2004) U.S. Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2003. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-358, U.S. Department of Commerce.

2. Whitehead H (2003) Sperm Whales: Social evolution in the ocean. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

3. Whitehead H, Kahn B (1992) Temporal and geographic variation in the social structure of female sperm whales. Canadian Journal of Zoology 70:2145-2149

4. Rice DW (1974) Whales and whale research in the eastern North Pacific. Pages 170-195 in Schevill WE (ed) The whale problem. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

5. Rice DW (1998) Marine mammals of the world: Systematics and distribution. Society for Marine Mammalogy Special Publication No. 4

6. Mesnick SL, NMFS-SWFSC, personal communication

7. Mesnick SL, Taylor BL, Nachenberg B, Rosenberg A, Peterson S, Hyde J, Dizon AE (1999) Genetic relatedness within groups and the definition of sperm whale stock boundaries from the coastal waters off California, Oregon, and Washington., Admin. Rep. LJ-99-12. Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, La Jolla, CA.

8. Rice DW (1988) Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus, Linnaeus 1758. Pages 177-233 in Ridgway SH, Harrison RJ (eds) Handbook of Marine Mammals, Vol 4. Academic Press, London.

9. Jaquet N, Whitehead H (1999) Movements, distribution and feeding success of sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, over scales of days and tens of kilometers. Aquatic Mammals 25:1-13

10. Dufault S, Whitehead H, Dillon M (1999) An examination of the current knowledge on the stock structure of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) worldwide. Journal of Cetacean Research & Management 1:1-10

11. Lyrholm T, Leimar O, Johanneson B, Gyllensten U (1999) Sex-biased dispersal in sperm whales: Contrasting mitochondrial and nuclear genetic structure of global populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London - Series B: Biological Sciences 266:347-354.

12. Forney KA, Barlow J (1998) Seasonal patterns in the abundance and distribution of California Cetaceans, 1991-1992. Marine Mammal Science 14:460-489

13. Green GA, Brueggeman JJ, Grotefendt RA, Bowlby CE, Bonnell ML, Balcomb KCI (1992) Cetacean Distribution and abundance of Oregon and Washington, 1989-1990. In: Brueggeman JJ (ed) Oregon and Washington Marine Mammal and Seabird Surveys. Minerals Management Service Contract Report 14-12-0001-30426

14. Whitehead H (2002) Estimates of the current global population size and historical trajectory for sperm whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 242:295-304.

15. Barlow J (2003) Preliminary estimates of the abundance of cetaceans along the U.S. west coast: 1991-2001. Southwest Fisheries Science Center Administrative Report LJ-03-03.  SWFSC, La Jolla, CA. 31 p.

16. NOAA Fisheries, Protected Resources Division, Cetaceans, Sperm Whale.

17. Flinn RD, Trites AW, Gregr EJ, Perry RI (2002) Diets of fin, sei, and sperm whales in British Columbia: An analysis of commercial whaling records, 1963-1967. Marine Mammal Science 18:663-679.

18. Amano M, Yoshioka M (2003) Sperm whale diving behavior monitored using a suction-cup-attached TDR tag. Marine Ecology Progress Series 258:291-295

19. Whitehead H, Waters S, Lyrholm T (1991) Social organization of female sperm whales and their offspring; constant companions and casual acquaintances. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 29:385-389

20. Christal J, Whitehead H (2001) Social affiliations within sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) groups. Ethology 107:323-340

21. Bond, J (1999) Genetic Analysis of the Sperm Whale Using Microsatellites. Ph. D. Dissertation. Cambridge University.

22. Richard KR, Dillon MC, Whitehead H, Wright JM (1996) Patterns of kinship in groups of free-living sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) revealed by multiple molecular genetic analyses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 93:8792-8795.

23. Mesnick, SL (2001) Genetic relatedness in sperm whales: Evidence and cultural implications. Behavior and Brain Science 24(2):346-347.

24. Best, PB (1979) Social organization in sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus. Pages 227-289 in Winn HE and Olla BL (eds). Behavior of Marine Animals. Vol 3. Plenum, NY, NY.

25. Whitehead H (1993) The behavior of mature male sperm whales on the Galapagos breeding grounds. Canadian Journal of Zoology 71:689-699

26. Best PB, Canham PAS, Macleod N (1984) Patterns of reproduction in sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus. Report to the International Whaling Commission (special issue) 8:51-79.

27. Gregr EJ, Nichol L, Ford JKB, Ellis G, Trites AW (2000) Migration and population structure of northeastern Pacific whales off coastal British Columbia: An analysis of commercial whaling records from 1908-1967. Marine Mammal Science 16:699-727.

28. Laist DW, Knowlton AR, Mead JG, Collet AS, Podesta M (2001) Collisions between ships and whales. Marine Mammal Science 17:35-75.

29. National Research Council (2005) Marine Mammal Populations and Ocean Noise: Determining When Noise Causes Biologically Significant Effects. Committee on Characterizing Biologically Significant Marine Mammal Behavior. National Academies Press, Washington, DC. 142 pages.

30. Mate BR, Stafford KM, Ljungblad DK (1994) A change in sperm whale (Physeter macroephalus) distribution correlated to seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 96:3268-3269.

31. Whitehead H, Gordon J, Mathews EA, Richard KR (1990) Obtaining skin samples from living sperm whales. Marine Mammal Science 6:316-326

32. Barlow J, Cameron GA (2003) Field experiments show that acoustic pingers reduce marine mammal bycatch in the California drift gill net fishery. Marine Mammal Science 19:265-283.

33. Barlow J, NMFS-SWFCS, personal communication

34. Perry SL, DeMaster DP, Silber GK (1999) The Great Whales: History and Status of Six Species Listed as Endangered Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Marine Fisheries Review 61:1-74.

35. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Low Flying Aircraft Disturbance Strategy and Acoustic Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

36. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Marine Debris Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.


References and Resources
Click here for images, reports, and links to other websites for this species.

Acknowledgement of Reviewers

Thank you to Karin Forney, Sarah Mesnick, and Barbara Taylor for reviewing this report and providing helpful comments and corrections.

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