We are aware that mammals nurse their young with their own milk, and we also know that whales are mammals. The logic of how some whales breastfeed remains a bit of a mystery to experts, though. Such is the situation with sperm whales.
Sperm whales are distinguished by their enormous, cube-shaped skulls containing the largest brains in the animal kingdom. Similar to other cetaceans, sperm whale calves require their mother’s milk for the first two years of their lives. Similarly to other cetaceans, a sperm whale mother’s nipple is concealed within a mammary slit rather than protruding from her body like most mammals.
Most whale and dolphin calves “suckle” by nudging the mammary slit to expose the nipple. Obviously, a sperm whale infant’s head and mouth are not built for typical nursing, as its large nose protrudes over its much smaller lower jaw.
But even in the whale sense of a mother shooting milk into a baby’s mouth, it is unknown how it works for sperm whales because of their peculiar heads. Photos and observations have led experts to conclude that the mother whale expresses milk into the ocean for the calf to consume outside of the mother’s body, but the underlying mechanisms remain unclear.
With the development of underwater photography and filmmaking, it may seem odd that we do not have more evidence of nursing whales to study. However, because young whales cannot simultaneously breathe and nurse, breastfeeding events are typically brief. Even observing a whale nursing is extremely rare, let alone capturing it on film.
National Geographic’s four-part documentary series provided the first cinematic footage of a nursing sperm whale baby. It depicts the young whale placing its lower jaw into the mother’s mammary slit and the milk, which contains ten times more fat than human milk and has the consistency of yogurt, shooting directly into the mouth of the baby whale.
Credit: National Geographic
“Secrets of the Whales” was devised by National Geographic Explorer and photographer Brian Skerry and explores the tales of five different whale species: narwhals, humpbacks, belugas, sperm whales, and orcas. It was shot in twenty-four sites around the globe and took three years to produce. Produced by award-winning filmmaker and conservationist James Cameron (of “Titanic” and “Avatar” fame) and narrated by award-winning actress and conservationist Sigourney Weaver, the series is certain to please both whale and nature enthusiasts.