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Recognizable by their massive squarish head, sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales.

Although they are known to dive to incredible depths, sperm whales like Valleau do on occasion venture into the shallower waters of the St. Lawrence.

About thirty different sperm whales have been identified in the St. Lawrence, but researchers did not know Valleau before he died.

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A group of six sperm whales rise to the surface. We see the dorsal fins of five of them and the top of the head of the sixth. The shoreline can be seen in the background.

On September 10, 2003, the citizens of L’Anse-à-Valleau made a surprising discovery: a sperm whale carcass had washed onto the shore. GREMM’s team travels to the Gaspé Peninsula

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Beached sperm whale carcass

Valleau had large circles on his skin. Could they be scars left by the suction cups of a giant squid, which the sperm whale sometimes feeds on?

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Photo of a sperm whale carcass on shore, with its head in the foreground.

When you look at the skeleton of a sperm whale, you might wonder where its big boxy head has gone... That’s because it’s not made of bones! Rather, it is filled with soft tissues and oil, which form what is called the spermaceti organ and the melon.

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Diagram of the head of a sperm whale. One can see the skull with the lower jaw and the upper jaw. Above the skull is a large mass that occupies the entire volume that forms the sperm whale’s huge squarish head. The upper left part constitutes the spermaceti organ and the lower right part, the melon. The sperm whale’s blowhole is found at the front of the head, while the nasal passages run through the entire spermaceti organ.

Valleau died at the young age of 25. How did we determine his age? The growth layers on one of his teeth were counted, just as one might tally the growth rings on a tree.

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Cross-section of a sperm whale tooth cut lengthwise. There are 25 small red arrows that indicate growth layers.

Even a whale with large teeth like Valleau does not use them to chew its food.

It only uses them as a tool to catch its prey, which are then swallowed whole.

Not all whales eat the same thing, but they are all carnivorous.

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Diagram of four species of whales and their main prey
Sperm whale: squid
Beluga: fish, small squid, polychaetes (bristle worms)
Fin whale: fish, krill
Blue whale: krill

How does digestion take place in whales?

Since whales swallow their food whole, they need an efficient stomach. Whales’ stomachs are similar to those of ruminants in that they are divided into different chambers, each of which has its own function.

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Diagram of the sperm whale’s digestive system, with mouth, tongue, esophagus, stomach, intestine and anus. Transparent view of the whale’s body and its skeleton.

What does whale poo look like?

Whales usually defecate near the surface, far from depth pressure. The color of the feces can give us a clue about the whale's menu.

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A humpback whale’s tail is seen vanishing under the water as the animal dives. Directly behind it, we see a small patch of reddish-brown water.

How is whale poo helping to fight climate change?

The fact that whales release their excrement at the surface is good for phytoplankton, which benefit from the free fertilizer! These microscopic, CO2-breathing algae at the base of the ocean’s food chain only grow on the surface where there is light.

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Diagram showing a sperm whale that forages in deep water but defecates near the surface. Phytoplankton grow on the surface thanks to feces, light and CO2.

What is ambergris?

When a sperm whale captures a squid, it swallows it whole, including the beak. Most often, it vomits the beak because the latter cannot be digested... But, should a beak make its way into the intestine, the sperm whale’s digestive system secretes a substance that makes the sharp-tipped beak easier to pass. This substance is called ambergris.

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Diagram of a sperm whale and its digestive system. A close-up is shown of the ambergris in its intestine.

Even if it cannot break down squid beaks, the sperm whale’s digestive system is still adapted to handle them. However, sometimes whales eat things they shouldn’t… like garbage!

A lot of trash accumulates in our oceans and waterways. Plastic bags and containers, nets, ropes... This anthropogenic refuse can take hundreds of years to break down.

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Beach strewn with trash

Trash can be ingested by whales, either because they mistake it for prey or simply because it was in their jaws’ path.

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The sperm whale’s digestive tract is being flensed while one person removes a pile of garbage.

The clump of trash found in Valleau’s body was not enough to have blocked his digestive system and directly caused his death, but it might have had an effect on his state of health?

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Photo of a compact clump of fishing net, rope and a piece of plastic bag.

What can we do to reduce the amount of garbage in our rivers and oceans?

Waste is being sorted and piled on a tarp on the ground. People are busy picking up trash and adding it to the piles.

Pick up waste already present.

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Logo symbolizing the ban on single-use plastic bottles

Reduce waste at the source.

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What can I do to reduce the amount of waste in our rivers and oceans?

Paying attention to our own consumption and where we dispose of our waste is a first step. Reusable objects should be favoured and, if they cannot be reused, recycle as much as possible.

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Diagram showing the replacement of a disposable plastic cup with a reusable water bottle.

Now that you’ve heard Valleau’s story, let’s go meet the other whales!

See the skeleton in 3D
Fact sheet
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