Ambergris: The Highly Sought-After ‘Whale Vomit’

Mar 9, 2022 0 comments

The sea washes up all kinds of strange stuff, from carcasses of whales and squids to fossils and ancient shipwrecks. But nothing is as precious as ambergris, a hard, resin-like substance with a light gray or yellow tinge and having a pleasant aroma.

For thousands of years, ambergris was staple in perfumes. The Ancient Egyptians burned the substance as incense, and modern Egyptians smoke it in cigarettes. Ambergris was also used to flavor food and drink. A serving of eggs and ambergris was reportedly King Charles II of England's favorite dish. Ambergris is also used as a flavoring agent in Turkish coffee and 18th century European drank it with hot chocolate. During the Middle Ages, ambergris was used as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.

Ambergris. Photo: David Liittschwager/National Geographic

Despite its wide application, for centuries nobody knew where this rare waxy substance came from, except that it washed up on beaches. The ancient Chinese thought it was dragon’s spit. Others believed it was seabird poop, or some kind of marine fungus. One Englishman asserted with confidence that it was nothing but honeycombs that bees made upon large rocks on the seaside, which then fell into the sea. It wasn’t until 1724 that Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston finally uncovered the truth. Ambergris is whale shit (or vomit).

Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of sperm whales. Because whales consume large quantities of squid and cuttlefish, which have hard, sharp beaks, it has been speculated that the whale secrets a protective, fatty substance that engulfs the hard, indigestible beaks to keep them from injuring their guts and organs. The substance is then expelled from the body, although researchers aren’t sure from which end of the whale the blob of ambergris comes out. Sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University suspects the substance is defecated. “Well, it smells more like the back end than the front end,” he says.

When it’s first released from the guts, ambergris is pale white in color, soft, and greasy with a strong fecal smell. The mass floats to the ocean’s surface where, exposed to the sun and salt water, it gradually hardens, developing a dark grey or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic. The longer the ambergris remains at sea, the more it incorporates the scents of the sea. Its “like butter in your fridge take on the smell of other things”, explains Vera Thoss of Bangor University.

A mother sperm whale and her calf. Photo: Gabriel Barathieu/Wikimedia

Eventually the lumps wash ashore, wherein they are collected and sold at lucrative prices. A pound of ambergris discovered by an eight-year-old boy in the UK in 2012 was said to be worth $63,000. The high price is due to the rarity of the substance. According to Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, only about one percent of the world’s 350,000 sperm whales produce ambergris.

Instead of waiting for a lump to wash ashore, many collectors seek out for whale carcasses. Kemp tells a story about “a Tasmanian fisherman who supposedly—on finding a whale carcass on the shoreline in 1891—cut a hole in its neck just large enough to fit into, and then crawled into the whale, squirming through its cold intestines in search of a boulder of ambergris that was lodged there.”

Ambergris usually come in small chunks from less than 15 grams up to 50 kilograms, but one chunk found in the Dutch East Indies weighed about 635 kg.

Ambergris is difficult to identify. One test for ambergris is to poke it with a hot needle and a liquid should ooze out giving off a musky smell. It’s that smell that has captivated the perfume industry. But even the smell is difficult to describe. “When you finally hold a piece of it, and smell its strange bouquet of old wood, and earth, and compost and dung, and wide open places, you understand that none of the other things you’d suspected were ambergris were anything like it,” Kemp says.

“My first impressions of the scent were that it was slightly waxy, vaguely marine, sweet, and a teeny tiny bit fecal,” recalls Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. “It was a bit of a let-down, to be honest—it didn’t match the hype. But it’s a lot better on the skin, I learned. The smell, on the skin, is both subtle and somehow radiant. It smells how warm skin feels. It’s remarkable, and it’s sheer and it’s uber sexy.”

Ambergris. Photo: Peter Kaminski/Flickr

The scarcity of ambergris and its varying quality has led to search for an alternative. Since the 1940s chemists have synthesized compounds like ambrox and cetalox that mimic ambergris. In 2012, researchers at the University of British Columbia identified a gene in balsam fir trees that makes a compound that smells close to ambergris. But not everyone is so enthusiastic. “It’s like watching a Beatles cover band instead of the real thing,” Kemp says. “It gets close but lacks something indefinably important.”

Kemp believes that many major perfume houses still purchase real ambergris, but Saskia Wilson-Brown disagree. “I sincerely doubt many people use real ambergris—let alone perfume houses! The supply chain is too unreliable for the big guys to rely on it.”

Yet, somebody is buying them for outlandish sum and Kemp isn’t sure who the buyers are. “I have no idea where most of the ambergris goes,” Kemp says. “It costs $10,000 a pound. And people are willing to spend that much money on it. But then it disappears again. For the most part, I think it’s still mostly used in fragrances, but it’s also burned in religious ceremonies and probably eaten in Asia, as a sort of herbal remedy.”

In 2021, a team of 35 fishermen off the coast of Yemen netted a 280-pound sample that they sold to a buyer from the United Arab Emirates for $1.5 million and shared the profits equally. Several members of the fishing crew purchased new homes, cars, and boats off the windfall.

“The smell wasn't very nice, but it was worth lots of money,” one of the fishermen told the BBC.

# Vera Thoss, Ambergris: how to tell if you’ve struck gold with ‘whale vomit’ or stumbled upon sewage, The Conversation
# Hadley Meares, In Search of Ambergris, a Highly Prized Slurry of Squid Beaks and Whale Feces, Atlas Obscura
# Jason Daley, Your High-End Perfume Is Likely Part Whale Mucus, Smithsonian Magazine


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