Epic Encounter: Giant Squid and Sperm Whale

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

The sperm whale and giant squid diorama in the Hall of Ocean Life has fascinated visitors for decades.
Sperm whale and squid diorama (HOL)
In the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, the diorama of a giant squid and a sperm whale sets a dramatic underwater scene.
© AMNH/D. Finnin
Squid and whale diorama renovation (circa 2003) long view
Before re-opening as the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life in 2003, the 29,000 square-foot hall and its dioramas−including the giant squid and sperm whale diorama—were extensively renovated. 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

In what is one of the most dramatic dioramas in the Museum, a giant squid is caught in the sperm whale’s mouth, its tentacles grasping at the whale’s head, which is actually an oversized snout. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephulus) interpret reflections of sounds generated by this uniquely shaped snout, employing a form of echolocation akin to that used by bats, to “see” their way through deep, dark water and to hunt prey.

In the Museum’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, a man wearing rubber gloves sits beside and cleans the inside lower jaw and teeth of the whale in the Giant Squid and Sperm Whale diorama.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Unlike baleen whales which feed by straining large quantities of water, sperm whales are in the category known as toothed whales and they pursue individual prey.

Sperm whales are the most sexually dimorphic of whales. Male sperm whales can weigh up to 90,000 pounds, with males sometimes outweighing females three to one. A 58-foot male sperm whale skeleton can also be seen in Whales: Giants of the Deep, beside a strikingly diminutive female skeleton.

Sperm whale skeletons
Two sperm whale skeletons grace the exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Giant squids (Architeuthis) are cephalopods, a group of mollusks that also includes shelled nautiluses, cuttlefish, and octopuses. They are among the most elusive and mysterious creatures of the sea. No one had ever seen one alive in the wild until 2005 when a group of Japanese scientists captured one in still photos at a depth of 2,950 feet. Researchers in a submersible in the Pacific later caught one on video for the very first time in the summer of 2012. Scientists still don’t know how many giant-squid species exist, how many individuals there are, how long they live, how fast they grow, or how deeply they dwell in the ocean. 

Sperm whales are known to dive over 6,500 feet in pursuit of food, staying under water for more than an hour. Of course, no humans have ever seen an encounter between a sperm whale and a giant squid, but the evidence is found in the stomachs of sperm whales that contain the indigestible beaks and other body parts of giant squids. Also, sperm whales often bear scars that match the sharp cookie cutter-shaped suckers of the giant squid’s tentacles.

giant squid tentacle
Toothed suckers on the tentacle of a giant squid
 © AMNH/C. Chesek

Visitors often ask why the sperm whale and giant squid diorama is so dark and why, unlike all other dioramas, there is no glass on the front. The darkness is deliberate—to approximate the pitch-black conditions of the deep ocean where no sunlight penetrates. The glass was removed in the 2003 renovation because reflections created a mirror effect against dark interior leading visitors to think the diorama was empty. Also in 2003, blue-colored fluorescent light was installed and color, based on the best scientific data available at the time, was added to the figures, which originally had been painted a flat black.