AMBERGRIS: The Floating Gold – Why is Whale Vomit so Expensive?

Gold is considered as one of the most expensive out of the market but waits there is something else called Ambergris or Whale Vomit which commands a higher price than gold which makes ambergris the floating gold! On 1st June 2021,35 fishermen spotted a sperm whale carcass near the Gulf of Aden. In this whale carcass, they found ambergris worth $1.5 million, along with that recently many cases reported in India regarding the trading of ambergris.

What is Whale Vomit?

Ambergris or Whale Vomit

AMBERGRIS is commonly called whale vomit or whale poop. It is a solid, waxy substance produced by the intestine in the sperm whale which is considered as one of the strangest occurrences. The sperm whale is the largest toothed marine mammal species which has a complex diet that primarily includes cephalopods [giant squids], sharks, skates, and fish which makes the digestion bit complicated. To make the digestion simpler shark body produces a special kind of wax which eases the sharp objects like teeth and pens of squids that it may have eaten, which later evolved as ambergris which took years. At some point in their lifetime, they will vomit this ambergris. The fresh ambergris and foul-smelling, soft, free-floating, and off-white colored substance. After ages due to continuous photodegradation and oxidation, this vomit converted into very hard dark substances with an earthier scent which has high economical value in the international market.

I tell people that they’ve got to sniff a lot of dog droppings before they fine a bit of ambergris”

Interview with amateur historian LLOYD ESLER, New Zealand (2010)

Why is it So Expensive?

According to the officials, 1kg of ambergris cost upwards of 1 crore INR which is thrice the rate of 1kg of pure gold [24 carats].

Ambergris is rare and can be found only in 1-5% of the total whale population.

Generally used by big cosmetic and liquor industries to produce perfumes and liquors out of it. Ambergris is one the best fixative in fine perfumes till date. Ambergris enhances the smell of perfumes and liquors which makes the perfumes long-lasting.

Why Whale Vomit Is Illegal In Some Countries?

In countries like India, the sale of ambergris is prohibited under the Wildlife Protection Act. Because sperm whale was declared an endangered species in 1970. As people start hunting sperm whales to get ambergris out of them even before ejecting them outside naturally.

However, in countries like the UK and many European countries, it is perfectly legal to trade ambergris. Because CITES {The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species} regards ambergris as an excretion similar to urine or feces.

Origin & History of Ambergris

                           “Ambergris is an extraneous substance, that swims in the sea, and is swallowed as a    Delicacy by the Fishes, and voided by them again undigested. It seldom stays long enough, to be found in their bodies.” 

CASPAR NEUMANN On Ambergris (1729)

Ambergris is first found in 1908 luckily by a fisherman in Hartford Courant. Ambergris is found in one in every 100 sperm whales which occur in both males and females also in pygmy sperm whales. The largest ambergris was found in 1914 which weighs around 455kg.

The origin of ambergris is still uncertain, though in 1783 Xavier Schwedianer described that it may be due to intakes of certain undigested food. Many researchers defined ambergris as the preternaturally hardened dung or feces, But no!! As mentioned, sperm whales have a complex diet that generally includes pens, beaks, indigestible ink of squids, and the cuticle of a nematode worm. To avoid internal injury-causing by these shrill objects the wax produce will mix up with these sharp objects. Later the principal-agent “bacteria” start acting upon it, the same bacteria exist in human feces. The rectum of sperm whales only deal with the liquid wastes but the coprolite incubates in the rectum for a long period. Simultaneously, the accelerating growth of coprolite blocks feces and stretches the rectum till it bursts, and eventually, whales die which led to the emission of ambergris into the sea.

Ambergris has some useful effects on the organism too. It increases the excess water absorption in the rectum and also helps animals from internal injury from sharp objects.

Facts Regarding Sperm Whales

The name sperm whale comes from a waxy secretion that is white looks like semen found in the whale’s head. The secretion is useful for candles, cosmetics, soap, lamp oil, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Sperm whales can produce a sound called clicks of about 236 decibels which is double the sound produced by jet engines (150 decibels) which can make the human body shiver to death. These clicks help them to hear or communicate with each other even from different sides of the planet also helps them to find the prey by the phenomenon called Echo-location.


Conservation Status

Historically sperm whales are heavily hunted species due to some persistent threats like ship shrinks, entanglement, oil spell disasters, etc. Especially the Mediterranean population is less than 2500, which makes them vulnerable(category) on the IUCN on the red list of threatened species.

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