The physeter, or sperm whale, is an enormous predator of the deep oceans. It must surface to breathe, and rest, and sleep, but its main haunts are an alien world to us, a world of darkness and crushing pressure, inhabited by bizarre denizens. The physeter sweeps the abyss with its sonar beam, listening for echoes that betray its prey - fish, octopus, but especially squid ranging from mid-size species to the giant cephalopods of the deep.
Physeters are easy to recognize. Their heads are easily 1/3 of their body length. The lower jaw is long and slender, the upper forms a blunt prow housing its sonar organs. The mouth is filled with sharp teeth. Their eyes are small, as are the front flippers and the dorsal fin. The rear flippers are large and used for propulsion by powerful strokes of the animal's back and tail. The brain of the physeter is the largest of any living animal.
Female physeters travel in small groups with their immature offspring. The adult females cooperate in defending their young, circling the calves and defending them with their powerful flukes and teeth. Young adult males often congregate in small bachelor herds, but mature bulls are typically found alone.
Like all whales, physeters sleep with only half their brain at a time so they can surface to breathe. The non-sleeping half remains semi-alert and capable of directing the body. Also like other whales, physeters have no sense of smell.
Physeters are the only known predators of giant and collosal squid. This is no easy prey - the squid have huge eyes to detect the bioluminescent wake physeters excite in microscopic algae as the swim by, can jet away at high speed, and defend themselves with tentacles and arms that are equipped with serrated suckers and swiveling hooks. The skin of physeter heads are scarred with circular cookie-cutter marks left by battles with these squid.
In the past, physeters were commonly hunted for the waxy semi-liquid called spermaceti found in their sonar organs. This was no task for the faint-hearted - physeters are large and powerful, and have been known to attack and even sink ships that harried them. When the sharp beaks and hooks of squid irritate a physeter's intestines, it produces a substance called ambergris which is vomited up. This ambergis is valued by humans for production of perfumes and can fetch high prices.
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