Looking at a waxy lump of ambergris, you might not think such a beachcombing find would be worth very much, but, as a fishing crew in Yemen recently discovered, it’s like floating gold. They spotted a 127-kilogram (280-pound) mega-lump of the stuff bobbing in the ocean. After returning to the shore with their rare catch, it was estimated to be worth around $1.5 million – not bad, for a bit of whale goo.
So, what is ambergris? And why is it so valuable?
Ambergris is a product specific to sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) who enjoy feasting on squid. Much of the squid is soft and delicious but the hard beaks, which can’t be digested, get regurgitated by the whale. Sometimes, these tough parts can accumulate in the bowel and it’s thought that the formation of ambergris protects the whale’s gut from injury.
Where the ambergris goes next isn’t entirely clear. Some think that the ambergris can make its way back up the whale’s digestive system and is released into the ocean like a big ball of whale sick. However, it’s also possible that the (sometimes enormous) lumps are passed out the other end of the whale, like a big ball of waxy whale poop. As if that notion isn’t bad enough, it’s also possible that the ambergris lumps can become an obstruction in the bowel, getting stuck in the colon and eventually bursting the poor whale’s poop chute. Owie.
In the latter incident, the buoyant blob of ambergris could eventually be released from the whale’s carcass as it decomposes. That being said, it's only reported to be found in less than 5 percent of whale carcasses.
So, three potential routes of passage for this guttural glob of gold, but what makes it so precious? One of the easiest ways to pick out a blob of ambergris amongst other, less valuable, anonymous beach blobs is its smell. It starts out pretty gross, smelling very much like poop, but is said to later mature into a musky odor. It might not sound great, but it’s highly coveted by fancy perfume companies who use the ambrein alcohol extracted from ambergris to sustain scent.
Not all whale goo is created equal, however, with pure white varieties being the most valuable in the perfume industry. Ambergris can also be grey, brown, and black, with the latter being the least valuable as it contains the least ambrein. The quality is influenced by oxidation, something that happens when a big ole’ blob of whale gut juice bobs about in the sea for a long time.
If the promise of a hefty payout has you hankering for an ambergris hunt, it’s unfortunately not so simple. Sperm whales are protected and any kind of interference to access their precious goo or spermaceti oil (once used to fuel lamps) is very much illegal. The only hope is to be found on the beaches (or at sea), where – depending on your luck, and available hours for beach patrol – you may one day stumble across a blob of precious ambergris.
You could also try getting a job, though.