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Moby Dick’s Ambergris: Whale shit that’s worth thousands of dollars

PortandTerminal.com, February 4, 2020

“Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!”

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

PARIS, FRANCE – Natural ambergris, which is one of the most valuable raw materials in the perfume, comes from sperm whale poo. And while the smell of it has been described as “a cross between squid and farmyard manure”, it does make some of the world’s most expensive perfumes smell great.

In this small piece of ambergris, you can see a piece of squid beak underneath the thumb of the person holding it.

Although the nature of ambergris is not fully understood it is known that the dull grey or blackish waxy lumps largely consist of undigested squid beaks (the sperm whale’s main prey is giant squid).

Scientists think a waxy substance is secreted in the whale’s stomach to help them bind together objects like squid beaks and other food items that they can’t digest. Once the sharp bits are covered in the waxy substance the whales are then able to pass those objects through their intestines without causing damage.

A squid beak as shown here is very hard and sharp. It is believed that ambergris helps the whale to safely pass the undigested beaks without damaging their intestines.

After enough of the ambergris is produced, the whale either regurgitates the smelly lump of junk or poops it out.  The science on how the whale gets rid of it is not 100% clear, but either way, it’s not pretty.

This gentleman is holding a piece of ambergris he found washed up on the beach that is worth an estimated $65,000.

In the past, ambergris would be one of the things harvested by whalers who hunted sperm whales along with their oil, blubber and meat. That all came to end though when sperm whales were listed as an endangered species and hunting them was forbidden in all but a few countries.

In the United States, the possession and trade of ambergris are prohibited by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

That’s not the case in all countries though including in France and the UK, where it is still legal to possess and trade ambergris. These days though, instead of hunting sperm whales, ambergris is collected from remains found at sea and on beaches where it washes up.

A bottle of Channel No. 5 perfume against a white background
Some high-end perfumes such as Channel No. 5 still use ambergris as part of their ingredients

Some high-end perfumes still use ambergris for the active chemical it contains called ambrien, which suspends smells in the air, and for its own unique scent. Instead of using real ambergris there is now a synthetic substitute called ambroxan that is used instead in most of the less-expensive perfumes. For the connoisseurs with deep pockets though, only real sperm whale poo will do.

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