It is a solid, waxy, greyish substance that smells: Ambergris, is also known as sperm whale vomit (or poop). It has often been described as one of the world’s strangest natural occurrences. You may have heard about it for its use in the production of perfumes and fragrances.
You’re probably asking yourself now why smelly whale vomit would be an important ingredient for perfumes. That brings us right to the weird qualities of ambergris. Once excreted from the whale, it has a blackish color and a fecal odor. Before washing ashore, ambergris can be floating in the open ocean for many years causing its nickname ‘floating gold’. It is during this time that ambergris oxidizes and, thereby, turns white and acquires its sweet, earthy scent. Then it has become the sought-after high quality ambergris. When used as a fixative in perfumes, it prevents fragrance from evaporating.
What makes ambergris so costly?
Ambergris is rare because it’s produced in the digestive system of only one whale species: The sperm whale. Sperm whales feed on cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish. These creatures have beaks and pens that are indigestible. In most cases, the whales presumably vomit them out before digestion. Every now and then, these parts move into the whale’s intestines and cause a secretion from the bile duct. The exact formation of ambergis remains unexplained. Somehow the secretion and the horny beaks bind together and over many years, become a solid mass. Therefore, the most wide spread explanation is that ambergris protects the sperm whale’s intestines from the sharp squid beaks. According to another hypothesis, the secretion serves to heal wounds in the gut wall caused by the beaks.
Sperm whales are a cosmopolitan species. Deposits of ambergris can be found floating in any ocean or washed up on many shorelines. There is reason to believe that the two closest living relatives, the pygmy (Kogia breviceps) and dwarf (Kogia sima) sperm whales might produce ambergris in smaller amounts as they too have cephalopod-rich diets. This has not been confirmed though. Also the number of sperm whales producing ambergris is pretty low. Estimates range from less than 5% to as few as 1% of them. These numbers already tell you that finding ambergris during a beach stroll is like winning the lottery.
How does ambergris get out of the sperm whale?
Even though ambergris got the nickname ‘whale vomit’, its exact origin remains under debate up to this day. Most experts actually lean towards the theory that sperm whales excret ambergris from their lower end – meaning it is rather whale poop than whale vomit. Considering that whalers found in a whale’s stomach a large ambergris piece up to 455 kg (1000 lbs) in 1913, this theory brings up new questions. Do large pieces of ambergris obstruct the whale’s intestines and eventually cause its rectum to rupture? Does ambergris only see the light of day after the whale has died a natural death and decomposes? Is the production a normal process or pathological? These things have not been clarified yet.
With so many questions still unanswered, it is not a surprise that ambergris used to be a mystery for centuries. Theories about its source have been around since at least the 10th century indicating that people have been using it for more than 1,000 years. In China, ambergris was believed to be a substance from the saliva of dragons. Seafarers told stories about ambergris growing on the seafloor like mushrooms. With such exotic rumors about its origin, it seems natural that ambergris was thought to have some remarkable properties. In 14th century Europe, for instance, people believed that carrying a piece could protect them from contracting the Black Death.
Marco Polo was among the first to report about oriental sailors hunting sperm whales for ambergris but thought that the whales swallowed it with their food. Even though his association of ambergris with whales was right, a number of ides about its source persisted in different parts of the world until the 18th century. That’s when large-scale whaling enterprise disclosed the secret about its true origin. Recently, researchers analyzed the DNA found in jetsam ambergris for the very first time. They confirmed the sperm whale was the source.
The sperm whale’s ambergris is still valuable today
Due to accessibility and cost, nowadays only few high-end perfumes contain ambergris. Since the 1930s, the main component, ambrein, has been produced synthetically and is used widely in the perfume industry. The process, however, is expensive and environmentally harmful. It was not until last year that researchers in Austria discovered a cheap and more environmentally friendly way to produce it.
Nonetheless, it is worth keeping your eyes open next time you go on a beach stroll. In 2016, a UK couple came across a 1.57 kg (3.45 lbs) lump of ambergris worth up to US$ 70,000. It does get better. Later that year, a fisherman in Oman found an 80 kg (176 lbs) piece which was valued at almost US$ 3 million!
If you’re a US resident, however, I advise you to be careful: the Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibts the possession and trade of ambergris. In contrast, in the UK and France it is completely legal. No matter where you get lucky, you should definitely report the find to the local environmental agency. This information may help to better understand the life cycle and distribution of sperm whales. After all they are almost as mysterious to us as ambergris was not too long ago. Good luck!
For further reading:
- Clarke R (2006) The origin of ambergris. LAJAM 5(1): 7-21.
- Macleod R, Mikkel-Holger SS, Olsen MT, Collins MJ, Rowland SJ (2020) DNA preserved in jetsam whale ambergris. Biol. Lett. 16: 20190819.
- Moser S, Leitner E, Plocek TJ, Vanhessche K & Pichler H (2020) Engineering of Saccharomyces cerevisiae for the production of (+)‐ambrein. Yeast 37:163–172.
- Rowland SJ, Sutton PA, Knoweles TDJ (2018) The age of ambergris. Natural Product Research 33(21): 1-9.
You can also check out our other posts on sperm whales here.
Hanna is a biologist from Germany with focus on marine mammals. During her university days she was involved in research projects in Italy, Australia and also Iceland. This is where she has spent most of her time since receiving her Master’s degree. Here she has been working as a naturalist for whale watching companies in different parts of the country. Since starting to work as a guide and lecturer on polar expedition cruises in 2017, she has been migrating between Iceland and Antarctica sharing her passion for cetaceans and seals.