Herman Melville didn’t mince words when it came to the sperm whale. With emphasis, he explained “I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense.” And it didn’t ­— since we know it as the creature that sank the whaleship Essex in the real-life tragedy that was the inspiration for Moby Dick.

It is not surprising that this mammal became famous and it isn’t just for its literary distinction. Sperm whales claim many superlatives that put them at the top of a few lists.

Start with size. Sperm whales are livin’ large ­— the largest of the toothed whales (some baleen whales grow larger), with the males being up to three times as massive as the females of the species. Females weigh in at about 15 tons, while males can be up to 45 tons.

An alternative name, cachalot, refers not to the numbers harvested, but is translated as “big head” or “big teeth,” as is the etymology of the latter part of its scientific name Physeter macrocephalus. The common name, “sperm,” comes from spermaceti, the compound in its head that made this animal so valued for oil, lubricants, and candles the spermaceti could make. Look to the Dr. Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown for the history of this profitable enterprise.

That size, of course, leads to grander titles. In that big head, sperm whales have quite a large brain. In fact, it is the largest brain on earth. At 18 pounds, it is five times heavier than the human brain.

While they may not have hearts of gold, sperm whales do have a heavy heart, which can be 250 pounds. This whale’s teeth are also large, more than two pounds each. Interestingly, sperm whales do not chew their prey; rather they crush and grind their favorite food squid, of which they consume up to three per cent of their body weight a day.

The consumed squid goes through the longest intestinal system in the world (over 900 feet), and will reach the whale’s four-part stomach. The beaks of the squid are difficult to digest, collecting in the stomach, sometimes in the thousands.

These beaks are an irritation that is not wholly digestible.  Much like the formation of a pearl in an oyster, these chitinous material are managed by the secretion of a waxy substance known as ambergris to mitigate the discomfort and assist in their breakdown.  The ambergris will eventually be expelled via the animals’ mouth or anus and can be found floating or on beaches.  It is a prized and valuable material used in the perfumery trade.

More bragging rights go to the sperm whale when it comes to its diving abilities, even if it is not the top dog. Sperm whales are the third deepest divers of the sea, after only elephant seals and beaked whales. While normal dives range to 3,000 feet, exceptional records show that up to 10,000 feet is possible.

These impressive dives do take their toll, however, as necropsies have shown osteonecrosis or bone damage and other responses that resemble decompression sickness in humans. Sperm whales have adaptations that help, including a flexible rib cage that allows for collapse (rather than snapping) under pressure and specialized blood for conserving oxygen.

Sperm whales can also slow their metabolism to increase their time under water until they can surface and breath air through their blowholes. Remember, whales are mammals and can’t breathe under water.

Last week, a dead sperm whale was observed at Norton Point. Though it was in a stage of decay, it was clear from those who observed it, they were gazing upon a once great and powerful beast. In life, as in death ­— and in our imaginations — it can always hold its gigantic head high.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.