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What Is Ambergris?


Ambergris  The owner at Perfumer's Apprentice is a stickler for fine ingredients.   This is real whale ambergris -- kind of smelly and weird by itself, but it's supposed to add a lot to perfume.
peterkaminski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Question: What Is Ambergris?
Occasionally, people will effectively "strike gold" while walking on the beach - with a substance that comes from a whale's intestines. This substance is called ambergris. What is ambergris, where does it come from, and how do you find it?

What Is Ambergris?

Ambergris is a waxy substance that comes from the intestines of the sperm whale and pygmy sperm whale. The exact function of ambergris is not known, but ambergris often contains the beaks of squid, leading researchers to think it helps aid digestion and protects the whale from the sharp parts of its prey.

Reports vary as to how the ambergris actually gets out of the whale and into the ocean/on the beach. Some believe the ambergris comes out the whale's mouth as vomit, others think it is excreted as feces, and some think it just becomes "available" when whales die and decay. Once the ambergris makes it out of the whale's body, it floats on the ocean as a sticky, odorous black mass. Bathed in air, sunlight and ocean water, the mass of ambergris becomes a gray, waxy lump and takes on a more pleasant odor. On the beach, it eventually looks like a rock.

How is Ambergris Used?

Ambergris has been used since ancient times in perfumes, medicines and food. It is still used as a scent and fixative in perfumes, and even in drinks and delicacies. It is described as having a "musky," "animalistic," "sweet" smell.

Although synthetic ambergris has been produced, real ambergris is still sought-after by the perfume industry. There's a catch, though. Since it is a product from a whale, there may be regulations against owning ambergris. This is the case in the U.S., where possession of the substance has been illegal since 1972 since sperm whales are an endangered species.

Where Is Ambergris Found?

Ambergris may be found floating on the water or on beaches in areas where sperm whales are found. According to the Australian government, however, ambergris is only found in 1-5% of sperm and pygmy sperm whales, so even if there are sperm whales nearby, the odds are against finding a piece of ambergris on your next boating or beach excursion. However, some people have.

Leon and Loralee Wright strolled a beach in New Zealand in 2006 and found a 32 pound lump of ambergris, which was reported to net possibly $295,000.

In August 2012, a boy and his father in Dorset, England, found a 1.3 pound piece of ambergris that was said to possibly fetch as much as $63,000.

The largest piece of ambergris, according to the book Whales and Dolphins in Question (see reference below) was a 928-pound mass taken from a 48-foot male sperm whale captured in 1953 in the South Atlantic Ocean.

How Do I Know If I Have Ambergris?

If you think you have found a piece of ambergris, there is a way to test it, involving ambergris' trait of melting at even fairly low temperatures. Heat a needle for about 15 seconds, then push it into the sample to a depth of about 1 cm. If your sample is real ambergris, the sample will melt around the needle and you'll see a dark brown to black, resinous liquid. When you pull the needle out, ambergris will leave a tacky residue.

References and Further Information:

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Marine Life
  4. Marine Life 101
  5. Glossary - Marine Life and Marine Biology Terms
  6. What Is Ambergris?

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