Photograph by David Liittschwager, National Geographic; collection of Mandy Aftel
Published August 30, 2012
Sperm whales eject an intestinal slurry called ambergris into the ocean, where the substance hardens as it bobs along. Eventually it gets collected along shores—most often as sheer happenstance, as in the case of eight-year-old Charlie Naysmith in the U.K. a few days ago.
Walking along the beach in Dorset with his dad, the boy found what looked to be a very odd rock. He and his dad used Google to help identify it as ambergris. Weighing more than a pound, it is said to be worth up to U.S. $63,000.
The value of ambergris lies in its role in the fragrance industry. High-end perfumes from houses such as Chanel and Lanvin take advantage of the ability of ambergris to fix scent to human skin.
The smell of ambergris itself varies from piece to piece, ranging from earthy to musky to sweet. If a perfume house's "nose"—the person responsible for choosing scents—likes the aroma, the ambergris can be worth thousands an ounce.
Though it is illegal to use ambergris in perfumes in the U.S. because of the sperm whale's endangered status, foreign markets, especially French, remain strong. (Learn secrets of whale evolution in National Geographic magazine.)
Scientists still don't know for sure the exact origins of ambergris. They do know that when sperm whales have a stomach or throat irritant, often a squid beak, they cover it in a greasy substance and cast it out.
It was once thought the ambergris was ejected by mouth. As of now, the argument seems to be weighted toward the back end of the whale.
Johnna Rizzo is a Departments editor for National Geographic magazine and the author of the nonfiction children's book Oceans. More of her writing on ambergris will appear in the magazine's October issue.
Well, they didn't specify which end the ambergris exits the whale, just a proposal, but since the article said it could be something it ate, then I think it may be similar to the tonsil stones we humans sometimes cough out.
I'm going for a whale tonsil stone (tonsillolith).
P.S. I can't believe you mentioned tonsil stones. I never heard of them until my daughter, after suffering with them for a loooooooong time, looked it up on google (good ole google), and found out what had been bothering her. I was glad to read that someone else had heard of them. I hope you're doing well. J.S.
Feed the World
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Latest From Nat Geo
These cooing Casanovas use showstopping plumage to court females and fend off rivals.
Meet a trapper who keeps Florida's streets, sewers, and Kennedy Space Center alligator free.