Evaluation of a method for determining the length of sperm whales (Physeter catodon) from their vocalizations


  • Wildlife and Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road. Oxford OX1 3PS


The click vocalizations of sperm whales often contain several regularly-spaced, discrete pulses of sound. Norris & Harvey (1972) hypothesized that these were caused as a single pulse of sound produced at the front of the whale's head bounced between reflective air sacs at either end of the spermaceti organ. Thus the interval between pulses will be twice the travel time for sound along the length of the spermaceti organ. It should therefore be possible to determine spermaceti organ length and thence total body length by measuring the interval between these pulses. Several workers have used an equation relating inter-pulse interval (IPI) to body length to estimate sperm whale body lengths acoustically.

In this paper, aspects of this technique are examined in some detail. In particular, variability in IPIs and trends in IPI with time and depth are investigated. Most importantly, for the first time IPIs in the vocalizations of whales of known lengths have been measured.

Variability in IPIs in the clicks of a single whale is acceptably low though there is a tendency for low and high values to occur in runs. There is no clear trend for IPI to alter significantly with the whale's depth or with the time since leaving the surface.

IPIs are positively correlated with body length though not as predicted by the equations used by previous workers. Some likely errors in these equations are discussed. A new empirically derived relationship between IPI and body length has been calculated, though more data are desirable to obtain a more accurate and reliable equation.