Why Is the Ocean Salty? Whale Sperm!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Blue Whale
Franco Banfi / Getty Images

According to this viral message, your typical blue whale produces more than 400 gallons of sperm when it ejaculates, a factoid offered up to explain why the oceans are salty. In reality, even the largest whales only ejaculate up to a few gallons of semen at a time.

Description: Email hoax / Joke
Text circulating since: October 2002
Image circulating since: June 2003
Status: False (details below)

Email contributed by Duane G., June 17, 2003:


FW: Don't drink the sea water... read below first....

The average blue whale produces over 400 gallons of sperm when it ejaculates, but only 10% of that actually makes it into his mate. So 360 gallons are spilled into the ocean every time one unloads, and you wonder why the ocean is so salty...

Analysis: If you're looking for a scientific explanation of why the ocean is salty, click here. (Hint: It has nothing to do with whale sperm.)

As to the viral message reproduced above, it's a two-part hoax, the text having first appeared as a "Fact of the Day" on email joke lists toward the end of 2002; the attached image is of unknown origin and didn't begin making the rounds until June 2003.

It should be obvious at first glance that the text and image don't match. How could the relatively small aquatic specimen in the photo possibly produce 400 gallons of sperm at a go? By way of comparison, the capacity of an average hot tub is roughly that same amount, 400 gallons, meaning this poor creature would have to possess testicles twice the size of the rest of its body to live up to its glandular reputation.

In point of fact, the animal in the photo probably isn't a blue whale — or any whale — at all (see below).

A Question of Testicular Volume

Blue whales being the largest animals on the planet, it stands to reason that their reproductive organs ought to be of similarly impressive dimensions, and that is certainly the case.

By one estimate, the penis of a blue whale can measure up to 16 feet long and its testicles weigh in at around 25 pounds apiece. But even packing 50 pounds of bollocks — the weight of an average-sized bulldog, if you need a benchmark — it's absurd to imagine that a blue whale (or any other creature on earth, for that matter) could produce 400 gallons of seminal fluid at a time, or even one-tenth that amount.

For yet another comparison, I found a credible source stating that the southern right whale — which has testicles even larger than the blue whale's, weighing in a half-a-ton apiece — produces about five gallons of ejaculate in a single mating session. Five gallons, not 500.

The statistic is clearly bogus.

Whale or Whale Shark?

Finally, there's the question of whether the animal depicted in the viral image is even a blue whale at all — which, actually, it appears it is not. Blue whales average at least 75 feet in length. Using the human beings in the image above for scale, the creature is clearly smaller than a blue whale and most likely isn't any kind of whale at all, but rather a whale shark.

Since sharks don't have penises per se, we must further conclude that either the photograph was doctored (though I could detect no obvious signs of that), or the spectacular appendage dangling between the animal's pelvic fins is one of its claspers, a pair of tubular organs with which a male shark fastens itself to the female and inseminates her during reproduction.

To Sum Up:

• Blue whales can't possibly ejaculate 400 gallons of sperm (the capacity of an average-sized hot tub) — not even close.

• The animal in the photo probably isn't a blue whale, nor is the circled appendage its penis.

• There are good reasons to avoid making a habit of drinking sea water, but sperm spillover isn't one of them.

• Which is more than can be said for hot tub water.

Bonus Question:

Is It True that a Whale Penis Is Called a 'Dork'?
Urban Legends Blog, 7 July 2003

Sources and Further Reading:

Why Is the Ocean Salty?
About.com: Chemistry

Whale Sperm Makes the Ocean Salty, Snooki Claims
Fox News, 28 December 2011

Is It True the the Blue Whale Ejaculates 400 Gallons of Sperm?
Ask the Researcher! (Whales Online, 14 April 2003)

How Big Is a Blue Whale's Penis/Testicles?
Ask a Scientist (WhaleNet, 20 March 1997)

Did You Know?
Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2002

In Pursuit of Giants
Sunday Times (South Africa), 22 Sep. 2002

Is a Whale Shark a Whale or a Shark?
North Carolina Aquarium Society

Shark Reproduction
Canadian Shark Research Laboratory