One mammal’s waste could be another mammal’s treasure. Usually, humans are the mammals wasting the planet’s food and water supplies. In this case, it is a whale’s waste product that is worth a fortune for humans. We’re talking about ambergris – the sperm whale’s “vomit”.
The latest lucky winner in the ambergris lottery is Ken Wilman, after his dog, Madge, picked up a piece of that “vomit” on a beach at Morecambe, Lancashire in north west England. It weighed just three kilos but it is estimated to be worth more than 115,000 euros.
Last August, an eight-year-old boy found a piece of ambergris on a Dorset beach in south west England, it weighed in at 600 grams but because of its rare golden colour was valued at over 46,000 euros.
The biggest recorded piece ever found weighed 455 kilograms. It was sold in London in 1914 for £23,000; adjusted for inflation that would be as much as £2m (2.3 million euros) in today’s money.
Floating treasure
Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance, normally of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in a whale’s digestive system.
Freshly produced ambergris is soft and has a marine, faecal smell, but as it ages, it hardens and acquires a sweet, earthy scent which has been described as like the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the chemical astringency.
Historically, ambergris was used as a fixative for perfumes. Nowadays it has now been largely replaced by synthetics.
The substance can be found floating on the sea, or washed up on the coast. Several locations in Brazil, Madagascar, China, Japan and New Zealand have become well known for frequent discoveries of ambergris.
Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have put forward the theory that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastro-intestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten.
Ambergris that forms a mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth, which is why people thing ambergris mainly manifests as whale vomit.