Squid Versus Whale

October 1, 2008
By Mandy Calkins

Countless illustrations and museum displays depict the battle between two of the ocean’s most fearsome predators, the sperm whale and the giant squid.

An artist's rendering of a sperm whale preying on a giant squid. Credit: NASA - Glen Loates

In real life, sperm whales often bear battle scars from a giant squid’s massive tentacles, or gashes inflicted by its sharp beak. But scientists have found that some sperm whales with damaged jaws or even no teeth at all have stomachs full of squid. How can these whales find and take down such fierce prey?

One hunting tool sperm whales are thought to use is sonar, or echolocation. The whale utters a series of clicks, and the sound waves bounce off nearby objects, giving away the size and location of those objects, which sometimes are prey. Scientists think sperm whales might also use their spermaceti organ, which is two large oil-containing sacs in the head, as a sort of amplifier to produce a loud sonic blast that stuns the squid, enabling the whale to swallow it whole.

Whales also might wait to take down squid when they are most vulnerable. In a 2004 study, scientists tracked sperm whales hunting the giant squid’s smaller relative, jumbo squid. After feeding on fish near the surface, the squid made deep dives, possibly to recover from heat and oxygen stress. Scientists think it might be at this time that the whales take advantage of the stressed squid.

If researchers someday manage to tag and track giant squid, they might get an idea of which of these hunting techniques sperm whales use to subdue their massive prey — showing us what the battle between squid and whale really looks like.