10 Facts About Ambergris

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What is ambergris? It’s often referred to as the “treasure of the sea” or “floating gold.” Humans have been procuring this substance for centuries, and for quite a long time its origins remained a mystery. Ambergris is produced by sperm whales, and it is one of the most unusual substances found in nature. Here are ten facts about ambergris that will give you a better understanding of what it is and what makes it so fascinating. 


Fact #1: Its Origins Were a Constant Source of Speculation

         When humans first discovered ambergris, they figured out various uses for it but could not figure out how it was formed or where it came from. Some guessed that it was hardened sea foam. Others theorized that it was large bird droppings. Mythical origins emerged, too, with some convinced that it was a dragon’s drool. When large-scale whaling began in the 1800s, fingers began pointing at the sperm whale and, over time, scientists began to unravel the mystery of the substance, ultimately concluding that it’s a byproduct of a sperm whale’s digestive system.


Fact #2: Ambergris Is Produced in the Sperm Whale’s Intestines

         A sperm whale’s diet includes large quantities of cephalopods, especially squid. When whales eat squid and other prey, their digestive system begins the complex process of breaking down the food. The formation of ambergris occurs when bile secretions, undigested squid beaks, and other intestinal matter get mixed together within the intestinal tract. Some scientists believe that ambergris is formed as a means to protect the whale’s digestive system, surrounding and encapsulating indigestible or irritating substances (think sharp squid beaks) and relieving the ulcerations that may be caused by these sharp objects.


Fact #3: It’s a Slow-Growing Mass

         Ambergris is said to form over a period of several years. In its early stages, it’s a soft and foul-smelling mass. How long it takes to develop is difficult to estimate, but it might have a lot to do with the whale’s diet and digestion rate, plus the amount of time the mass spends being exposed to the elements once it’s expelled from the sperm whale’s body.


Fact #4: How It’s Expelled Is Still Debated

         While some people are quick to nickname ambergris “whale vomit,” scientists say that it’s not regurgitated. Rather, it’s expelled through the whale’s rectum. According to an article titled “What is ambergris?” by Emily Osterloff of the Natural History Museum, she quotes Richard Sabin, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Museum, as saying that he believes ambergris passes from the sperm whale’s body through its rectum during defecation.


Fact #5: As Ambergris Hardens, Its Smell Changes

         When the sperm whale expels the ambergris, the mass will rise to the surface of the water, which will expose it to the elements. Once this floating mass dries out and hardens, it transforms into a waxy substance with an undeniably characteristic scent.

         The scent is described as musky, earthy, and, believe it or not, pleasant! American novelist Herman Melville referenced the scent in his famous whale-inspired novel, Moby Dick. The narrator encounters a dead whale and mentions its “faint stream of perfume.”

         So, what does ambergris smell like? It’s fragrant and perfumy, with notes that are described as warm, musky, earthy, and sweet. The scent profile includes hints of musk, vanilla, tobacco, and damp earth. Ambergris’s aroma is both alluring and complex, making it a popular ingredient in the fragrance industry.


Fact #6: Ambergris Is Harvested for Use in Perfumes and Medicines

         Sperm whales reside in oceans worldwide, so ambergris can be found floating in many of the world’s oceans. It also washes up on shorelines. When ambergris deposits are found, they are harvested and used in eastern medicines and in perfumes.

According to an article published in 2012 by National Geographic, ambergris is a highly prized (and valued) ingredient in the perfume industry because it is known to enhance fragrances and “fix scent to human skin.” In eastern medicines, ambergris has many purposes. Some believe it can treat back pain, enhance digestion, and support the kidneys. It’s a popular ingredient within traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. The price of ambergris depends on its quality, size, and the pleasantness/strength of its odor.


Fact #7: Laws Regarding the Collection of Ambergris Vary

Given how important it is to protect wildlife—including marine mammals residing in the ocean—many countries regulate or restrict the trade and use of whale-derived products. Since ambergris is classified as a “waste product” of sperm whales that occurs naturally,

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) does consider it legal to collect ambergris if you find it on a shoreline or while at sea.


Fact #8: Ambergris Is Rare

         Due to the uncertainty in supply, and the fact that ambergris takes years to develop, it’s widely regarded as a rare find. When it does show up on a shoreline, its appearance will vary—some pieces of ambergris look like small lumps. Other pieces are quite large. The more time ambergris has spent floating and aging on the surface of the water, the more it undergoes changes in its texture, color, and consistency. The most desirable form of ambergris is solid, light in color, pleasant-smelling, and waxy.


Fact #9: Sperm Whales Are the Primary Source of Ambergris

         Scientists have found that pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales can produce ambergris in small quantities. However, sperm whales are credited as the primary source of ambergris. They continue to be studied by scientists the world over because despite what we do know, there’s still a lot we don’t know about these beautiful creatures that live and feed in the deepest depths of the ocean.


Fact #10: Synthetic Ambergris Exists

         Synthetic alternatives to ambergris have been developed. These alternatives make it possible for perfumers to replicate the unique qualities of ambergris without having to wait—and pay a significant sum for—the genuine substance.


Try Harbor Breeze Cruises

         At Harbor Breeze Cruises, we’re passionate about making it possible for you to enjoy seeing marine life up close on our fleet of comfortable boats. Join us on one of our cruises today so you can experience the magic of whale watching with us! You can book your cruise online or by calling 562-432-4900. Our experienced crew and educators from the Aquarium of the Pacific look forward to welcoming you aboard so you can make memories, take photographs, and connect with nature.


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