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The Wonder of Bones. The Tale of a Whale.

By September 14, 2015No Comments

by Dr. Godfrey Merlen, Director, Sea Shepherd Galapagos


Photo: Sea Shepherd/Godfrey Merlen

This skull I exhumed from the beautiful beach at Villamil on the south coast of Isabela Island. It represents the first evidence of a species known as the dwarf sperm whale, from the Galapagos Marine Reserve. It is the smallest “whale” on the planet at just under two meters, or six feet in length.

This animal beached alive and although attempts were made to save it, sadly death followed within 24 hours. The cause of stranding remains unknown.

Since we have considerable data on sightings of blue whales in the Reserve, we can now say with confidence that the smallest and largest of whales inhabit the productive waters that penetrate the Galapagos Islands.


Comparison of teeth from a female sperm whale and the dwarf sperm whale. The coin being used for scale is a dime. Sea Shepherd/Godfrey Merlen

I have collected skulls of Cetacea for the National Collection of Ecuador over many years, yet this particular one exceeds all others in its extremely simple lines, its miniscule size and the sheer beauty of its form. The deeply concave top of the head is indeed reminiscent of the mighty sperm whale, whose head may equal about 1/3 of the total body length, and to whom it is genetically related.

Although little is known of this species it is believed to use echolocation to navigate and search for food. This sonar of toothed whales and dolphins is one of the most remarkable adaptations of all mammals and has permitted them to penetrate the deep and totally dark regions of the seas in search of food.

And the method of echolocation is unique in all animal life. Through air pressure, the phonic lips in the nasal passages are caused to vibrate at speeds that man has not been able to record. The often-concussive sounds formed are emitted directionally forward through the shapes of the skull, air sacs, and differing tissue densities in the fore part of the head.

These innovative and unique changes would have been useless if it were not for the bony ear complex, which finally receives the echo from the emitted sounds, is moved outside of the skull from its ancient position within, as seen in terrestrial mammals from which whales and dolphins were derived. This helps remove extraneous vibrations of the head itself.


Bony ear complex of the dwarf sperm whale. It is slung under the brain case and receives echoes from the lower jaw bones. Photo: Sea Shepherd/Godfrey Merlen

In the killing of whales, and threatening them with extinction, we kill our understanding and skewer our imagination. For with them lies the extraordinary “magic” of life and its power of adaptation. We know not the mental capacity of Cetacea; we only perceive that they live by highly refined senses not used by human brains. They are, in a very real way, “other nations.”

In holding these bones in the palm of the hand I feel the thrill of being much closer to this “other nation” that lived and died in the waters of the Enchanted Islands.

Thus by protecting all whales and dolphins in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, through the 25-year-old Whale Sanctuary, we are able to come a little closer to the astounding reality of these species, that, over millions of years, have penetrated the inky blackness of the depths of the oceans utilizing techniques that mankind has only known for less than 100 years.

I am sad for the death of this tiny animal but am thrilled to be overcome with the beauty of its bony form and the message it sends. We welcome them to the protected area of the Galapagos Whale Sanctuary where they may live out their lives free from persecution.


The identification of whales is aided enormously by several readily available books. One that I use frequently is “Marine Mammals of the World”, an FAO species identification guide.  Nevertheless it should be noted that the Dwarf and Pygmy sperm whale species were only separated in 1966!

I was lucky to be sent an image of this tiny whale when it stranded on the beach so bones were not the single guide to identification.  It was clear from the under slung lower jaws (with considerable likeness to a shark) that it belonged to the Kogid whales.  However the extremely wide skull, bordering on circular in shape from a dorsal view, is unique amongst whales.  In addition the ear bones of whales and dolphins can be give-a-ways in identification since many species present unique sizes and shapes.

The sperm whale has extremely long maxilla and pre-maxilla bones (which compose the “beak”) and the ear bones are quite distinctive and large.


This very beautiful drawing of a sperm whale skull is from the 1880s.


Sperm whales have distinctive ear bones both in size and shape. This image is of ear bones collected from a female that stranded on the north shore of the bay in which I live, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island. Photo: Sea Shepherd/Godfrey Merlen

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