You may not be aware of it, but while strolling along the beach you might inadvertently come across one of the most valuable substances in the ocean: ambergris, also known as “floating gold”. It is an amorphous mass of variable size and waxy texture reminiscent of vegetable amber, with colors that can range from black to white, through matte gray (hence the name) or yellowish brown. As you approach it, you will notice a strange perfume, unique in its kind, with musky notes and a pungent touch. This natural treasure, exotic and very rare to find, is nothing more and nothing less than a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) excrement.
The genesis of ambergris
Ambergris is often associated with sperm whale vomit. However, it is most likely a coprolite. How is it formed?
First of all, it is important to understand the diet of the sperm whale. These toothed cetaceans are consummate predators that count cephalopods, such as squid and cuttlefish, among their favorite prey. To hunt them, sperm whales dive to great depths. These cephalopods represent an extremely valuable source of nutrients and sperm whales can consume hundreds of them per day to meet their high energy requirements. However, cephalopods have very tough and indigestible structures, such as their jaws, called beaks.
These difficult to digest structures pass into the stomachs along with the rest of the ingested food. Yes, you read that right, I speak of “stomachs” in plural because these cetaceans have four stomachs or, rather, a stomach divided into four chambers, as in ruminants. Like other animals, if sperm whales cannot digest something, they usually vomit it up. However, it can sometimes happen that, due to the peristaltic movements of the stomach, the squid beaks continue on their way to the intestine. It is this event that rarely triggers the formation of ambergris.
During their transit through the gastric chambers, the beaks will undergo partial degradation resulting from the movements of the stomach and the action of gastric acids and microbiota. As a result, an amorphous mass of fragmented beaks and digested food debris will be generated ready to pass into the intestines.
However, problems do not end there. These sharp beak fragments can cause damage to the intestinal walls. In response, the body reacts by secreting bile and cholesterol-rich fat to wrap around the food mass, cementing it and cushioning the damage caused by the squid beaks. Finally, the animal will defecate the remains, which, being less dense than water, will end up floating on the surface. It should be noted that, if ambergris is produced in response to the ingestion of cephalopods and their beaks, it is possible that other cetaceans that include squid in their diet, such as the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) or the dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima), can also synthesize “floating gold”.
This is the most plausible hypothesis to explain the synthesis of ambergris, supported by the findings of this product in the intestines of sperm whale carcasses. Unfortunately, no one has yet been able to observe this process in nature or replicate it in the laboratory (for obvious reasons).
Ambergris can drift for centuries and even more than a thousand years, as the team led by researcher Steven John Rowland, from the Biogeochemical Research Centre at the University of Plymouth, was able to verify from some ambergris remains collected from different beaches. During this time, the ambergris will suffer the inclemencies of photodegradation and oxidation, which give it its characteristic waxy appearance and final coloration. It is only a matter of time before ocean currents carry ambergris to virtually any coastline in the world, as sperm whales are cosmopolitan animals. Even so, it is believed that only one in a hundred sperm whales produces ambergris, so it is not so easy to find it just like that.
Multiple uses throughout history
Due to its rarity and unique properties, ambergris has been a highly coveted product throughout history by different cultures and has been given a multitude of uses and applications. In ancient China, for example, it was known as “dragon slime fragrance” and was used to flavor the wine of the imperial nobility. The Arabs used it as incense, while during the Renaissance it was dried and polished to transform it into a kind of precious stone. It has also been used for medicinal purposes as an aphrodisiac or to treat heart and brain diseases, gout, paralysis, spasms, etc.
A very peculiar use is that given by British monarchs since the time of Charles I of England in the seventeenth century as part of the eccentric ritual of coronation of the successors to the throne. It was mixed with musk, oils of orange, rose, cinnamon, jasmine, and other aromatic substances to make an almost sacred concoction with which the new monarch was anointed. Even Queen Elizabeth II also went through this ritual. On the contrary, it seems that in the coronation ceremony of Charles III it was decided not to use ambergris or other products derived from animals to avoid controversies related to animal abuse.
As a result of its great demand and value, ambergris has been a highly prized commodity, having been traded for large sums of money. In more recent times, ambergris has been used primarily for the production of luxury perfumes. This is because the derivatives of its main component, ambrein, an odorless terpenoid alcohol, have the ability to delay the evaporation of essential oils, allowing scents to remain on the skin for a longer time. This results in perfumes with more intense and longer-lasting fragrances.
However, as I have already emphasized above, ambergris is an extremely rare product to find, which limits its availability. As an alternative, perfumers have resorted to using synthetic compounds similar to natural ambrein, the most important being ambrox.
Unfortunately, the ambition to obtain ambergris and other products derived from sperm whales has led to intensive hunting of these creatures during the 19th and 20th centuries, seriously endangering their populations. Fortunately, the prohibition of whaling in some countries and regions, as well as the prohibition of ambergris trade and collection in others (such as the United States, India, and Australia), have provided a respite for sperm whales.
Despite its scatological origin, ambergris connects us to the depths of the ocean and the multitude of intricate biological interactions occurring in its matrix that we can often only imagine. The aroma of this extraordinary “floating gold” reminds us of the vast complexity of life in the oceans and all that we have yet to discover.
Brito, C., Jordao, V.L., Pierce, G.J. (2015). Ambergris as an overlooked historical marine resource: its biology and role as a global economic commodity. J. Mar. Biol. Assoc. U.K. 96, 585-596. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025315415000910
Dawson, B. (2023). Holy anointing oil for King Charles’ coronation will not contain the intestinal wax of sperm whales or civet secretions. Insider [online] May 6, available in: https://www.insider.com/king-charles-iiis-coronation-oil-wont-contain-sperm-whale-intestinal-wax-2023-3
Lorca, M.P. (2021). Ámbar gris: la caca de cachalote que vale su peso en oro. The Conversation [online] March 10, available in: https://theconversation.com/ambar-gris-la-caca-de-cachalote-que-vale-su-peso-en-oro-156711
Osterloff, E. (n.a.). What is ambergris? Natural History Museum [online]. Available in: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-ambergris.html
Rowland, S.J., Sutton, P.A., Knowles, T.D.J. (2019). The age of ambergris. Nat. Prod. Res. 33, 3134-3142. https://doi.org/10.1080/14786419.2018.1523163
WWF (2023). Illegal trade of sperm whale vomit: ambergris [online] available in: https://www.wwfindia.org/about_wwf/enablers/traffic/media/illegal_trade_of_sperm_whale_vomit/
Yamabe, Y., Kawagoe, Y., Okuno, K., Inoue, M., Chikaoka, K., Ueda, D., et al. (2020). Construction of an artificial system for ambrein biosynthesis and investigation of some biological activities of ambrein. Sci. Rep. 10, 19643. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76624-y