Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)


Stephanie L. Watwood, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Research Facility MS#50, Woods Hole MA, 02543, USA. E-mail:


  • 1Digital tags were used to describe diving and vocal behaviour of sperm whales during 198 complete and partial foraging dives made by 37 individual sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Ligurian Sea.
  • 2The maximum depth of dive averaged by individual differed across the three regions and was 985 m (SD = 124·3), 644 m (123·4) and 827 m (60·3), respectively. An average dive cycle consisted of a 45 min (6·3) dive with a 9 min (3·0) surface interval, with no significant differences among regions. On average, whales spent greater than 72% of their time in foraging dive cycles.
  • 3Whales produced regular clicks for 81% (4·1) of a dive and 64% (14·6) of the descent phase. The occurrence of buzz vocalizations (also called ‘creaks’) as an indicator of the foraging phase of a dive showed no difference in mean prey capture attempts per dive between regions [18 buzzes/dive (7·6)]. Sperm whales descended a mean of 392 m (144) from the start of regular clicking to the first buzz, which supports the hypothesis that regular clicks function as a long-range biosonar.
  • 4There were no significant differences in the duration of the foraging phase [28 min (6·0)] or percentage of the dive duration in the foraging phase [62% (7·3)] between the three regions, with an overall average proportion of time spent actively encountering prey during dive cycles of 0·53 (0·05). Whales maintained their time in the foraging phase by decreasing transit time for deeper foraging dives.
  • 5Similarity in foraging behaviour in the three regions and high diving efficiencies suggest that the success of sperm whales as mesopelagic predators is due in part to long-range echolocation of deep prey patches, efficient locomotion and a large aerobic capacity during diving.