In recent news, a group of 35 impoverished fishermen in the war-stricken country of Yemen had their lives changed completely. How did this happen? They stumbled upon some whale vomit, of course. That’s right. These fishermen came across a sperm whale carcass floating in the Gulf of Aden, and that carcass contained $1.5 million worth of whale puke.
If you’re confused by all this, you should know that this “whale vomit” is really a substance known as ambergris, something that forms in the digestive systems of sperm whales. It’s reported that only about 1% to 5% of sperm whales have ambergris in their stomach, making it exceptionally rare to find it. For the whales, the substance is used to protect their digestive tracts from harmful substances. For us humans, the substance is used as an additive that allows the scent of the perfume to last longer.
In the current international market, the going price of ambergris is around $50,000, making it one of the most expensive items in the world. The substance is illegal to possess and sell in the United States; however, in Yemen, no such law exists. The 35 fishermen who found the massive lump of ambergris all split the profits among themselves and distributed some of the wealth among the village. Some of the men bought themselves new cars and boats, while others spent the money on new homes or on weddings. One thing is for certain, though. All of them are a whole lot richer after this astounding find.
To understand how these men got so rich off of finding a hunk of whale vomit, let’s take a look at the history, uses, and value of ambergris.
The History of Ambergris
The name ambergris can be translated to “grey amber” in French because the substance was believed to be a kind of fossilized amber before they discovered that it was actually a product produced by whales.
Since the 17th century, ambergris has been used for perfumery all over the world. From the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, the whaling industry flourished, and over 50,000 whales (sperm whales included) were killed every year. The industry was so lucrative because whalebone, blubber, and ambergris could all fetch very high prices, and a single whale carcass could generate a massive amount of wealth for the crew of a ship.
So, although ambergris collection does not always require the killing of the whale, more often than not, whalers would kill the whale and collect all of the other valuable products in addition to the ambergris.
Perfume was not the only application for ambergris throughout the years, however. The substance has also been used in foods and drinks. King Charles II of England was apparently a big fan of eggs with ambergris, and it was also used to flavor Turkish coffee and hot chocolate in Europe in the 18th century.
During the Black Plague, some Europeans believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could prevent them from contracting the plague. In ancient Egypt, ambergris was used as incense, and, in fact, modern Egyptians still use ambergris to flavor their cigarettes. Some cultures even believed ambergris to be an aphrodisiac (who would be turned on by whale puke?).
In 1982, in response to whale populations becoming threatened, the International Whaling Commission ordered a moratorium on the commercial whaling industry. Even before that, the United States banned the possession and sale of ambergris as part of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Increasingly throughout the 20th century, fewer and fewer whales were being killed, and whale products were increasingly replaced by man-made products, with ambergris being largely replaced by ambroxide (a synthetic version of a chemical found in ambergris) in the perfume industry.
Despite several having banned the trading of ambergris, there is still an extremely lucrative international market for the substance.
What Is Ambergris?
To call ambergris “whale vomit” is a bit of a misnomer. Sperm whales don’t actually vomit up the substance, it actually comes out the other end. However, ambergris is not feces but a fatty substance that is secreted from the bile ducts of sperm whales’ intestines so that they can safely pass harmful things they’ve ingested, such as the beaks of cuttlefish and squid. Scientists have actually discovered the beaks of giant squid covered in ambergris floating around in the ocean.
When the substance is first released by the whale, it is whitish in color and has a rather offensive odor that’s sort of like a mixture between saltwater and poop (which makes a lot of sense). However, as it floats around in the ocean, it will undergo the processes of oxidation and photodegradation and develop a darker grey or black color and the unique odor that makes ambergris so sought after.
The smell of fully cured ambergris has been said to have around 30 different distinct aromas, each of which can be detected by our sense of smell. It’s been compared to tobacco or sandalwood. It’s said to be at once sweet, earthy, salty, and mossy like a damp forest floor. Its scent has also been compared to isopropyl alcohol (which is used in rubbing alcohol) without the harsh edge.
Where To Find Ambergris?
Since only about 1% to 5% of sperm whales actually produce ambergris, the substance is extremely hard to find. However, there are still people out there who actively look for it. Certain individuals have taken to tracking weather patterns and whale sightings to try and determine where a piece of ambergris might wash up ashore next. Dogs are naturally attracted to the scent of ambergris, so some people train dogs to sniff beaches for the substance.
A couple in Australia apparently found a 32-pound chunk of ambergris back in 2006, and it apparently sold for around $300,000. Three fishermen in Oman snagged a 176-pound ball of ambergris in 2016 that sold for around $3 million. A Thai fisherman found a 220-pound lump of the stuff in 2020 that was worth around $3.3 million. Those were some serious strokes of luck that are pretty much impossible to replicate.
It’s probably a waste of time to devote your life to searching for ambergris, as it seems there’s no way to really find it other than to simply stumble upon it. According to Dr. Shane Gero, a scientist who has been collecting samples of sperm whale feces for 15 to 16 years, he’s never once seen anything that looked remotely like ambergris. So, if he’s not finding any, you probably won’t find any either.
Don’t Support Ambergris
While ambergris may make for a great base note in perfume and may even taste pretty good (although I still don’t understand how one could eat whale vomit), using ambergris for any purpose is illegal in the United States. Beyond that, exploiting the products of an endangered species like the sperm whale is a detriment to our planet and the amazing organisms that live on it.
With the advances we’ve made in modern chemistry, there’s no reason to use ambergris for perfume anymore. While some people might suggest that ambergris smells better than the synthetic alternative, I think that slightly-not-as-good-smelling perfume is a small price to pay for preserving the Earth’s fragile ecosystems and preventing the exploitation of an endangered species.
If you want to learn more about sperm whale conservation or want to get involved with protecting the remaining sperm whales, check out the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and consider donating to their conservation fund.