National Geographic News
A piece of ambergris.

Four times heavier than this ambergris (file picture), a U.K. boy's find may fetch a fortune.

Photograph by David Liittschwager, National Geographic; collection of Mandy Aftel

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic News

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.

(Rare Pictures: Giant Squid Eaten by Sperm Whale.)

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.

Morten A.
Morten A.

@Agurus Guru 

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).

Jamie Schwartz
Jamie Schwartz

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.

Jamie Schwartz
Jamie Schwartz

The article mentioned 'the back end of the whale'. I think this statement speaks for itself...yes?


Popular Stories

  • 'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    The Myanmar Jerdon's babbler was thought to have gone the way of the dodo—until scientists stumbled across it during a 2014 expedition.

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »