Ambergris as precious as gold to some
Published 07/01/2014 | 05:30
TO SOME, ambergris is as precious as gold. In the fragrance industry it is highly prized as a fixative for expensive perfumes and is much sought after in the Far East as an ingredient in traditional medicines for a variety of common ailments.
Lumps of high quality ambergris are traded for tens of thousands of euro. Yet, beachcombers pick it up on the strand for free. The problem is it is extremely rare to find a piece of it.
Ambergris is known to come from whales, specifically from Sperm Whales. Only some whales make it and since whale numbers have taken a battering from commercial whaling all of this contributes to the substance being extremely rare.
In 1986 a moratorium was introduced on commercial whaling. In tandem with that several countries introduced a ban on trade in ambergris driving the lucrative business underground.
The precious substance can only be sourced from the wild in one of three ways: finding lumps of it floating at sea, finding lumps of it washed up on the strand and mining it by dissecting the remains of dead Sperm Whales, the largest toothed whales in the world.
One way to find it is to buy a piece of it and to train a dog to sniff it out while beachcombing. But since it is so rare, chances are that the dog might never find a lump in a lifetime of sniffing.
Exactly how and why Sperm Whales make ambergris is still not entirely clear. It is known that these animals dive deeply and hunt squid in the ocean depths. Squid have hard parrot-like beaks and after digesting a feed a squid the whales are known to vomit up the beaks rather than digesting them.
Whales evolved from cow-like land animals and like their ruminant ancestors they have four stomachs. It is believed that some squid beaks are not vomited up but pass through the stomachs into the small intestine.
To protect the intestine wall from irritation by these errant beaks it is speculated that a fatty substance is made from bile, coats the beaks and is passed out of the body via the bowel.
This soft, fatty, foul-smelling substance in the whale poo can float in the sea for years. Over time it hardens to a wax, darkens in colour and its smell matures to a sweet but musky and earthy one that is quite unique thus producing ambergris.