Why Do Sperm Whales Sleep Vertically? (Explained)

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are the largest of the toothed whales, with adult males reaching lengths of up to 60 feet and weights of up to 45 tons. These massive marine mammals are unique among cetaceans in that they regularly sleep in a vertical position with their heads pointing towards the surface, rather than sleeping horizontally like most whales.

This article examines how and why sperm whales came to develop this peculiar sleeping behavior. The information presented aims to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of the evolutionary adaptations and biological mechanisms that enable sperm whales to slumber vertically.

Do Sperm Whales Sleep Horizontally Like Other Whales?

No, sperm whales do not typically sleep horizontally like most other whales. Species of baleen whales, such as humpbacks and blues, usually sleep lying near the water’s surface with their bodies oriented parallel to the surface. Groups of these whales may sleep in a formation with their heads clustered together and tails pointing outwards in opposite directions.

Many dolphin species also exhibit similar horizontal sleeping postures. However, sperm whales are the only known cetaceans that regularly sleep perpendicularly in a vertical or head-up orientation.

Discovery of Vertical Sleeping in Sperm Whales

The first scientific documentation of sperm whales sleeping vertically was published in 2008 in Current Biology by researchers from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Tokyo. The biologists affixed suction-cup tags to 59 sperm whales to record measurements of the animals’ inactive periods.

Analysis of the tag data showed that whales spent around 7 percent of each day resting vertically near the surface for sessions lasting 10 to 15 minutes. The results suggested sperm whales may be among the least sleep-dependent mammals.

The tags revealed that sperm whales initiate vertical sleep by first angling head-down and descending to depths several times their body length. They then passively rotate to a head-up posture and drift back closer to the surface.

This research also demonstrated that sperm whales engage in a form of unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) while vertical. USWS involves one hemisphere of the brain shutting down to sleep while the other remains alert, a trait also observed in some birds and dolphins.

Scientists hypothesize USWS allows sperm whales to maintain vigilance against threats, regulate breathing, preserve social contact, and continue moving while still getting restorative rest.

Moreover, the adaption of USWS may explain the long lifespans of sperm whales, enabling them to regularly get quality sleep while reducing exhaustion over time, even when threats may be present.

Why Do Sperm Whales Sleep Vertically?

There are several advantageous reasons why sperm whales evolved the behavior of sleeping vertically:


Sperm whales must consciously regulate their buoyancy while sleeping subsurface. Positioning vertically with their blowholes upward simplifies maintaining neutral buoyancy through minor adjustments. Horizontal postures would require more strenuous swimming motions to prevent rising or sinking. Vertical orientation minimizes energy expenditure for buoyancy control.

Energy Conservation

The vertical posture requires little active effort for sperm whales to hover at their preferred depth. Their spermaceti organ can make subtle changes to counter passive drifting. Remaining relatively still also eliminates energy spent on horizontal travel.

Metabolic rates may decrease by 50% or more compared to when awake, further reducing caloric burn. Group synching of sleep cycles allows individuals to take advantage of hydrodynamic drafting, lowering drag and energy costs.

Oxygen Supply

As voluntary breathers, sperm whales must decide when to visit the surface to breathe. Vertical sleeping enables easy access to oxygen with minimal exertion by positioning blowholes directly at the surface. This is more efficient than having to fully wake up and swim from horizontal postures.

Vertically, they can absorb more oxygen as water pressure increases with depth, maximizing each breath. Passive breathing at the surface also increases diffusion compared to taking breaths in deeper, oxygen-poor waters.


By staying vertical and motionless, sperm whales minimize their visibility to predators during periods of vulnerability. The posture facilities use echolocation to monitor for threats even while asleep.

Vertical orientation also allows whales to quickly surface if needed, enabling rapid reactions to avoid danger. Proximity within pods while sleeping vertically is thought to aid group threat detection.


Sleeping parallel along thermoclines – zones of rapid temperature change in the water column – allows sperm whales to take advantage of cooler water in summer and warmer water in winter.

Heat loss is slowed during vertical drifting thanks to less surface area exposure compared to horizontal postures. Their shape while vertical also retains more body heat in the core instead of the extremities.

Insulative blubber works best when concentrated in a column during vertical sleeping. The spermaceti organ likely helps control blood flow to the skin surface to regulate temperature.


Positioning vertically may also provide camouflage benefits for sperm whales. Their elongated silhouette aligned with the lighter sky above and darker waters below disguises their outline and makes them less visible to aerial and underwater predators.

Their shape can resemble inanimate rock formations or pillars, concealing the sleeping animals.

Group Cohesion

Sperm whale social groups synchronize their vertical drifting periods. This coordination implies the behavior has social purposes. Maintaining close proximity likely aids in detecting potential threats and disturbances as a group.

How Do Sperm Whales Not Sink When They Sleep?

Sperm whales possess specialized adaptations that allow them to sleep suspended vertically in the water column without sinking:

  • Large size and buoyancy – Their massive bodies and blubber provide natural buoyancy to counteract sinking.
  • Spermaceti organ – By regulating the amounts of air and oil, sperm whales can finely control their buoyancy and depth.
  • Unihemispheric sleep – Half-brain sleep allows sperm whales to continue swimming and breathing reflexively while asleep.
  • Slow orienting flip – As the tail slowly sinks, the whale pivots into an upright posture due to buoyant forces acting on the body.

Read Also: Sperm Whale: An Endangered Species Profile

Do All Sperm Whales Sleep Vertically?

All populations of sperm whales studied thus far exhibit vertical sleeping. The behavior has been documented across their global range and in both deep and shallow waters.

One hypothesis is that vertical sleeping is an inherited genetic adaptation in sperm whales. However, it may also be a learned behavior, with calves observing and picking up the habits from their mothers. In any case, vertical sleeping clearly serves important functions for all sperm whales worldwide.

How Long Do Sperm Whales Sleep?

On average, sperm whales spend about 7 percent of their time sleeping, equating to around 1.68 hours per day. Individual sleep sessions last between 10-15 minutes on average. These brief bouts of rest intersperse periods of activity like feeding, socializing, and traveling.

Sperm whales may be among the least sleep-dependent mammals given their minimal required rest compared to terrestrial species of similar size.

The exact duration and frequency of sperm whale sleep varies based on factors like age, sex, and environment. Their use of unihemispheric sleep allows them to regularly minimize the time spent in vulnerable resting states. This adaptation likely aids their ability to thrive in the ocean’s complex conditions.


In summary, scientific research to date indicates that sperm whales are unique among cetaceans in that they regularly sleep in a vertical, head-up orientation rather than horizontally. This peculiar behavior appears to be an evolved adaptation that provides sperm whales with several advantages related to buoyancy control, energy conservation, oxygen supply, safety, thermoregulation, camouflage, and group coordination.

Their ability to minimize sleep while still accessing restorative rest may be key to sperm whales’ success as apex predators of the deep ocean. Further research can continue unraveling the intricacies of how and why these marine giants came to sleep like no other whales on Earth.

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