By Ben Scott
You’re finishing up an amazing morning of beachcombing, complete with several pieces of sea glass, some shells, and few intriguing fossils. You’re about to leave, when you spot a something lapping gently against the shore. At first, you think the whitish-greyish chunk is a rock, but as you get closer, something is off. It smells bad—really bad. You may have struck gold: it may be ambergris.
Ambergris is created by sperm whales in the bile duct, then passes through the intestines and out of the whales through fecal matter. Nice! Scientists believe that sperm whales produce ambergris to help pass firm or sharp objects that they have eaten (such as the beaks of giant squid, a common enemy of the sperm whale). It is also possible that some ambergris found on shore is from the whale’s vomit.
During the Black Death, it was common superstition that those who carried around a chunk of ambergris would be immune to its effects, because the stench of ambergris would prevent the holder from smelling the Black Death. The Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Chinese both used ambergris regularly. Historically, ambergris has mostly been used in creating perfume and musk. It is a valuable ingredient in perfumes, as its primary substance ambrein allows scents to last significantly longer than usual—though most perfumes today use synthetic substitutes because ambergris is remarkably rare.
How rare is it? Well, ambergris is only produced by sperm whales, and by only about one percent of them. In addition, it takes years for the sperm whale to produce ambergris, and it often floats on the ocean surface for decades before it reaches land. Because of its rarity, it is extremely valuable, leading to its nickname “floating gold.” In 2016, a group of fisherman in Oman found a 175-pound piece of ambergris that was valued at over $3,000,000. A Lancashire couple also found a three-pound chunk of ambergris in England in 2016 worth almost $70,000.
Many countries, including the U.S. and Australia, have banned the buying and selling of ambergris, and it is illegal to use in U.S. perfume making, even though most ambergris is obtained without harming whales. It is legal to buy and sell in the EU.
So, if you’ve found a mysterious bleached stinky substance on your beach, there’s only one thing left to do—test if it’s the real thing. To determine if your find is ambergris, just poke it with a hot needle; if it’s the real thing, jet black or caramel liquid residue will ooze out.
Pro Tip: If you want a better chance at finding ambergris, bring your dog along. They have been known to be very attracted to the stench and are very good at finding it.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue.