Cultural transmission may be a significant source of variation in the behaviour of whales and dolphins, especially as regards their vocal signals. We studied variation in the vocal output of ‘codas’ by sperm whale social groups. Codas are patterns of clicks used by female sperm whales in social circumstances. The coda repertoires of all known social units (n = 18, each consisting of about 11 females and immatures with long–term relationships) and 61 out of 64 groups (about two social units moving together for periods of days) that were recorded in the South Pacific and Caribbean between 1985 and 2000 can be reliably allocated into six acoustic ‘clans’, five in the Pacific and one in the Caribbean. Clans have ranges that span thousands of kilometres, are sympatric, contain many thousands of whales and most probably result from cultural transmission of vocal patterns. Units seem to form groups preferentially with other units of their own clan. We suggest that this is a rare example of sympatric cultural variation on an oceanic scale. Culture may thus be a more important determinant of sperm whale population structure than genes or geography, a finding that has major implications for our understanding of the species’ behavioural and population biology.