In 2016, three fishermen from the middle eastern country of Oman struck "floating gold" in the form of ambergris, traditionally thought to be whale vomit. (Modern science says the waxy substance is more like a whale gallstone, or whale poop.) Although it sounds pretty repellant, ambergris is actually worth big bucks — the chunk that these guys stumbled upon weighed 176 pounds (80 kilograms) and was allegedly worth nearly $3 million. But why was it so valuable?
Ambergris (which comes from a French phrase meaning "gray amber") forms in the intestines of a sperm whale. Scientists have found squid beaks in clumps of ambergris, leading many to surmise the ambergris is something of a protective secretion that protects sperm whales' digestive tracts from the scratching of those hard beaks. Traditionally, scientists believed that whales threw it up because they couldn't digest the substance, but many scientists now lean toward thinking that ambergris is passed out just like fecal matter.
When a whale initially expels ambergris, it is soft and has a terrible smell. Some marine biologists compare it to dried cow dung. But after floating on the salty ocean for about a decade, the substance hardens and becomes smooth, waxy and usually rounded. The dung smell is gone, replaced by a scent that has been famous for hundreds of years, probably more. The longer it floats, the better the scent.
The smell is so fine that ambergris is a coveted ingredient for fine perfumes. In fact, it's described as being smooth, musky, earthy, sweet or simply "indescribable." Aside from its unique odor, ambergris' vital function is helping perfume scent to bind to the surface of the skin and stick around, instead of quickly evaporating.
Ambergris is something of a collector's item, as it is in short supply. No other whales besides sperm whales produce it, and even then it's typically somewhere in the middle of the ocean, so it's a rare find. Ambergris only washes up on a beach somewhere every few years, tops, and is found in less than 5 percent of the sperm whale carcasses that do make it to shore.
That makes the product extremely valuable, but not in the way it once was. Chemists have replicated some of the traits of ambergris synthetically, making it a less-necessary component in perfumes. But it's still prized for its rarity, and certain perfume makers certainly prefer it to lab-created ingredients.
However, in some countries, including the United States, endangered-species legislation makes it illegal to buy or sell the stuff. Of course, that only makes it more desirable in certain circles. Experts quote the current rate for ambergris at about $35 per gram, depending on its quality, but legal issues can make it difficult to find a buyer.
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