Please use our A-Z INDEX to navigate this site





During the whaling era harvesters and manufacturers found sperm oil to be a valuable chemical for oil lamps and lubricants.

Sperm oil makes sperm whales, $Billion Dollar Whales. Because of the value of these fabulous animals in chemical terms, they were almost hunted to extinction, much the same as fisheries have been overexploited until they ceased to exist.


A Sperm Whale represented a bounteous harvest of chemicals, before the petroleum oil chemical industry took over. As with drilling for oil, the prospecting (hunting) and processing were messy and dangerous.


After killing a sperm whale, the whalers would pull the carcass alongside the main whaleship with the capture boat, or the whaleship would sail to the floating carcass if the weather conditions were favorable. The whale was then fastened to the starboard (right) side of the ship with heavy chains, whereby the crew then proceeded to erect a “cutting stage”, which primarily consisted of a wooden plank platform above the carcass.

It was important to process the whale as soon as possible to prevent sharks and other predators from feasting on too much of the valuable carcass. The whaling crew divided into two watches, worked six-hour shifts, day and night, until the job was finished. The process could take from several hours to several days, depending on the size and species of the whale, the skill of the crew, and the weather.





Blubber was stripped from the entire length of the whale (with other parts of the carcass often harvested for fashion products such as in the case of the Baleen whale), but the primary source of sperm oil was the spermaceti organ and the junk (or "melon"), the organs that serve to focus and modulate the animal's vocalizations. A sperm whale's spermaceti organ may contain as much as 1,900 litres of substance. The matter from these organs was stored in casks to be processed on land; sometimes it was boiled first to prevent it going rancid. The blubber also contained smaller proportions of spermaceti, which was obtained by boiling the blubber on the ship itself.


On land, the casks of head-matter were allowed to chill during the winter, causing it to congeal into a spongy and viscous mass. The congealed matter was then loaded into wool sacks and placed in a press to squeeze out its liquid. This liquid was bottled and sold as "winter-strained sperm oil". This was the most valuable product: an oil that remained liquid in freezing winter temperatures. When spring came and the leftover solid matter melted a bit, the liquid was strained off and sold as "spring-strained sperm oil". In summer, the matter melted some more and the liquid was strained off to leave a fully solid wax. This wax, brown in color, was then bleached and sold as "spermaceti wax".





Sperm oil is a waxy liquid. It is a clear, yellowish liquid with a very faint odor. Sperm oil has a different composition from common whale oil, obtained from rendered blubber. Although it is traditionally called an "oil", it is technically a liquid wax. It is composed of wax esters with a small proportion of triglycerides, an ester of an unsaturated fatty acid and a branched-chain fatty alcohol. It is a natural antioxidant and heat-transfer agent. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, sperm oil was prized as an illuminant for its bright, odorless flame and as a lubricant for its low viscosity and stability. It was supplanted in the late 19th century by less expensive alternatives such as kerosene and petroleum-based lubricants. With the 1987 international ban on whaling, sperm oil is no longer legally sold.

Sperm oil was particularly prized as an illuminant in oil lamps, as it burned more brightly and cleanly than any other available oil and gave off no foul odor. It was replaced in the late-19th century by cheaper, more efficient kerosene.

In the US, whale oil was used in cars as an additive to automatic transmission fluid until it was banned by the Endangered Species Act. Prior to 1972, over 30 million lb (14 million kg) of sperm whale oil was used annually in lubricants because of its exceptional lubricity and heat stability. In 1972, the sperm whale was listed as an Endangered Species. The following year, the US Congress amended the Endangered Species Act, outlawing the killing of whales and the use of their oil. The loss of whale oil had a profound impact in the automotive industry, where for example, transmission failures rose from under 1 million in 1972 to over 8 million by 1975.

Sperm oil was a popular lubricant. It worked well for fine, light machinery such as sewing machines and watches because it is thin, does not congeal or dry out and does not corrode metals. It was also used in heavy machinery such as locomotives and steam-powered looms because it can withstand high temperatures. In the late 20th century, Jojoba oil was discovered to be a better substitute for high-friction applications because it is even more stable at high temperatures. This caused sperm oil's price to collapse to a tenth of its previous value.

Because of its very low freezing point, sperm oil saw widespread use in the aerospace industry.

Sperm oil was used to protect metals from rust. A coat of sperm oil provided a temporary protection for the metal components in firearms, because it did not dry out or gum up. It was the basis of the original (but not current) Rust-Oleum.




A sperm whale carcass would be roped and chained to a ship, and a platform lowered to enable the sailors to chop up the catch as quickly as possible. It was hard work and dangerous with sharks competing for bites of the dead animal.



Bailing out the case, whaling processing of the sperm whale catch


The head of the sperm whale would be cut off and hoisted onboard ship, where a hole would be cut to bucket out the oils.


From the 18th to the mid-19th century, the whaling industry prospered. By some reports, nearly 50,000 whales, including sperm whales, were killed each year. Throughout the 1800s, "millions of whales were killed for their oil, whalebone, and ambergris" to fuel profits, and they soon became endangered as a species as a result. Due to studies showing that the whale populations were being threatened, the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. Although ambergris is not harvested from whales, many countries also ban the trade of ambergris as part of the more general ban on the hunting and exploitation of whales.



Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck in 1956


Gregory Peck gives an outstanding performance as Captain Ahab, the obsessed master of the Pequod, in the 1956 movie: Moby Dick.





Moby Dick is the story of a great white sperm whale that fought back at whalers who tried to harpoon him. The idea came to Herman Melville after he spent time on a commercial whaler, where stories abounded of the sinking of the Essex in 1821 and Mocha Dick, a giant sperm whale that sank around 20 ships, before being harpooned in 1838.


Moby Dick has inspired a great many adaptations, the same basic story finding its way into the making of four films and two television adaptations.


In addition there are many comics and illustrated volumes, adapted from the original, one of which is the emerging graphic novel version of a large humpback whale called Kulo Luna.


Kulo Luna is not as big as the whales depicted in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, but she has a diamond encrusted heart of gold, only attacking whaling ships that present a danger to herself or her friends. She becomes a $Billion Dollar Whale.





Herman Melville was the author of what we'd now consider an illegal activity, the commercial hunting of whales for oil and meat.




Please use our A-Z INDEX to navigate this site



This website is Copyright © 2020 Cleaner Ocean Foundation Ltd and Jameson Hunter Ltd