Friday, January 18, 2008

Spermaceti - What's in a name?


One of the must-go-to places when birding at Sandy Hook is the boardwalk at Spermaceti Cove. It gives an easy vantage point to the bay and surrounding salt marsh and is a delightful birding experience at any season. In the winter, a huge raft of Greater Scaup float along, Horned Grebes pop up here and there, Brant call from all over, and lots of gulls zoom overhead and in the distance. It's also a good spot to see lounging Harbor Seals on the distant sand bars. It's a place of endless surprises.

I had never known the origin of the name"Spermaceti Cove". I always figured it was someone's name or maybe a pasta shape that I hadn't encountered. The other day, while reading Peter Matthiessen's Wildlife in America, I found the source. In his chapter on the history of whaling in North America, I learned that spermaceti is actually a waxy substance present in the head cavities of the Sperm Whale and in the blubber of all whales. It's the source of the Sperm Whale's name because people originally had mistaken it for sperm. It can be used in cosmetics, leatherworking, and lubricants, among other uses. A large whale's head could hold as much as 3 TONS of the stuff. Lucky for the whales, there are substitutes for this substance used today. For example, jojoba oil is used in cosmetics. So now I know what spermaceti is, but I still don't know why the cove is actually named for it. There must be a story there...

Speaking of Sperm Whales, did you know that Moby-Dick was actually influenced by the real attack of a Sperm Whale on the Whaleship Essex?

Interesting note... on my visit to Spermaceti Cove last week, I spotted someone's discarded Christmas tree sitting on a sand bar that is not easily accessed by a human. I suppose someone tossed it into the bay and it arrived there on high tide. Sandy Hook Bay has enough trash already, why can't people just throw it on the sidewalk like everyone else?

5 comments:

tai haku said...

There is an excellent book on the Essex called something like the Heart of the Sea which I heartily recommend (although it is a bit grim).

Patrick Belardo said...

Thanks TH! I'll add to my impossibly long reading list.

Patrick Belardo said...
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Jennifer Hanson said...

Glancing through the chapter on Sandy Hook in Henry Charlton Beck's The Jersey Midlands revealed a passing comment that Spermaceti Cove was named because of a whale that washed up in 1668.

Patrick Belardo said...

And there you have it folks! Thanks Jennifer! You're always an excellent source of NJ history.