Ambergris is often called one of the strangest things that can happen in nature. It wasn’t known until recently how sperm whales made the substance that has been used for thousands of years. No other substance has had the same effect on people as ambergris throughout history. Fossils that date back 1.75 million years show that people have used the drug for 1,000 years.
It has been called “the treasure of the sea” and “floating gold.”
No one knew where it came from for years. Several ideas were put forward, such as hardened sea foam or bird poop. When large-scale whaling started in the 18th century, scientists found that sperm could only come from the sperm foam whale (Physeter macrocephalus). The most common cephalopods that sperm whales eat are squid and cuttlefish. In general, they throw away the beaks and pens of their prey before they start to eat them. People have used ambergris for hundreds of years, but no one knows where it comes from because of its unique properties.
Sometimes, these pieces can get into the whale’s digestive system and tangled up there. Over time, they build up inside the whale to make a solid mass of ambergris.
Some people think the whale will be able to get around the blockage, but others believe the backup will get so big that it will tear the whale’s rectum. Because sperm whales are found worldwide, ambergris deposits can be found in any ocean or on any beach.
People think that because pygmy and dwarf sperm whales (Kogia breviceps) and sperm whales (Kogia sima) eat a lot of cephalopods, they make less of the material.
When it is taken out of the whale, it is said to have a strong smell of feces. When it’s dry, though, the smell is better. At this point, most people describe it as having a musky scent. Herman Melville talks about this strange smell in his book Moby Dick. He talked about how awful a dead whale smelled and how he “stole a thin trickle of perfume” from it. Ambergris is used to get ambrein, alcohol with no smell, which is then used to make perfumes last longer. For hundreds of years, perfumers have used the color of ambergris to tell how good it is. The best scents come from the pure white types. Black ambergris is the least valuable because it has the least amount of ambrein. Ambergris masses get darker over time when they are in the water and air for a long time. Between black and white, there are a lot of colors, from grey to brown.
Ambergris can be lost at sea for years before anyone finds it. The longer the fish has been in the sea, the better it is. All but the most expensive perfumes now use synthetic compounds instead of ambrein because they are easy to get and don’t cost much.
But ambergris is used for a lot more than just making perfume. People in the ancient Arab world called it “anbar” and used it as an aphrodisiac, a medicine for the brain, and treatment for both physical and mental pain.
Is ambergris bad for whales to eat?
During the peak of commercial whaling, sperm whales were killed for their ambergris and other valuable goods. Those days are long gone. Several governments are thinking about bringing whaling back to control and manage populations.