Ambergris is a substance produced by the digestive system of sperm whales. For reasons which are currently unknown a small number of sperm whales expel ambergris from their body at at least one point during their lifetime. Ambergris is waxy in texture and a mix of dark grey, black and yellow in colour and is, at least initially, foul smelling. However, ambergris is extremely valuable due to its use in the cosmetics industry where it can be used as a fixative in expensive perfumes and fragrances. Perfume manufacturers are willing to pay prices up to tens of thousands of pounds for a kilogram of ambergris, with its rarity and value leading to this substance to come to be known as the ‘treasure of the deep’ and ‘floating gold’.
Ambergris: A Mysterious Substance
Despite scientific research there still remains much mystery over what exactly ambergris is and how it is produced. Certainly it is only produced by sperm whales and no other whale species, but no one knows exactly why these animals produce this substance. It is theorised that it may be used to ease the passage of sharp objects such as the beaks of squids or the teeth of large fish through the digestive system of sperm whales. For reasons that remain unknown a small number of sperm whales (maybe as few as one per cent) expel ambergris from their bodies, either by passing it through their intestines or vomiting it out of their mouth. While ambergris smells extremely unpleasant when it is initially produced by sperm whales it eventually takes on a pleasant aroma when exposed to air.
In the past when sperm whales were hunted they would be killed and the ambergris removed from their intestines (this happens in the 1851 novel Moby-Dick). However, with sperm whales no longer being commercially hunted ambergris is only collected once it has been naturally produced by sperm whales. Once it has been expelled by the whale it will float in the sea. Often it will be lost if it is broken up by a storm or smashed against rocks near to the shore. However, occasionally ambergris is washed up onto a beach where it will be discovered by lucky passers-by who have the necessary knowledge to realise what they have found.
Ambergris is so valuable due to its use in the cosmetics industry. It is used as an ingredient in high-price perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 as it acts as a fixative allowing the perfume to retain its smell for longer periods of time. While a lot of big perfume manufacturers now use chemical or synthetic fixatives in their products there is still great demand for ambergris with huge prices paid for this substance. Ambergris has been used for this purpose for thousands of years with evidence existing that ancient Egyptian civilizations used ambergris as a medicine, foodstuff and perfume.
Hundreds of years ago ambergris was many times more expensive than the equivalent weight of gold. While it is no longer this valuable many perfume manufacturers are still willing to pay high prices for ambergris. In 2015 a 1.1kg (2.4lb) lump of ambergris found on a Welsh beach sold for £11,000 at auction and a Lancashire couple found a 1.57kg (3.4lb) which they hoped to sell for £50,000. In 2019 a Thai fisherman who only earned £10 a day made international news when he found a large lump of whale vomit on Koh Samui beach in southern Thailand. It was confirmed that this contained 80% ambergris and was worth around £250,000.
The legality of possessing ambergris varies from country to country. In the United States it is an offence to possess ambergris due to the fact it is produced by sperm whales which are a protected species. However, in many European countries (including the UK) it is legal to own and sell ambergris, provided it has been found and not removed from the sperm whale.
However, some people are so keen to find ambergris that they misidentify items such as lumps of plastic, rubber and even plants such as oil palms as ambergris after they have been exposed to the elements and seawater. This happened to Ken Wilman from Morecambe who believed that he had found a 3kg (6.6lb) piece of ambergris while walking his dog on a local beach. A French perfume dealer offered him €50,000 (£44,500) if the ambergris turned out to be genuine. However, after a sample was sent away for analysis it was revealed that what Mr Wilman believed was ambergris was actually a worthless rock. In an interview with the Daily Mirror he said “if I had my time over again, I would kick the rock to one side and walk away … I wish I’d never found it.”