Vomit of whale (Ambergris)

Does the perfume have a fascinating smell because of whale vomit in perfume?

One of the world’s strangest natural resources is also called the gold of the seas. Ambergris is a hard, waxy, and inflammable matter formed inside the intestines of the sperm whale(the world’s largest toothed predator and the world’s largest tooth whale), Ambergris is commonly known as the whale vomit. It is dull grey or blackish in colour. These substances are vomited by whales and even a small piece is worth thousands of dollars. You might be wondering what Ambergris smell like. Fresh Ambergris has a foul, sea smell but as it ages it develops into a sweet, earthy aroma that is much like the fragrance of isopropyl alcohol.

Origination of the word Ambergris

The origin of the word comes from an old French term grey amber. There were several theories on what Ambergris was. At first, people thought that these are fossilized matter of trees and later thought this was created by bees. And some even thought it was hardened sea foam or bird droppings that these substances formed from.

However, evidence of these substances being used dates back 1.75 million years and humans have likely been using Ambergris (which is also known as the whale vomit)for more than 1000 years. Until the 1800s the formation of whale vomit remained a mystery. After that, the sole producer of Ambergris was identified as the sperm whale.

Ambergris of a Sperm Whale (2012 in the Natural History Museum Ecomare)
Ambergris of a Sperm Whale (2012 in the Natural History Museum Ecomare)

How Ambergris is formed?

Ambergris is formed from the secretions of the intestines of the sperm whale and it is sometimes found in the abdomens of dead sperm whales. Even though this is called whale vomit scientists have theories that most of them have agreed upon. According to them, this substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract. 

And this eases the passage of hard objects it has eaten. It is said that this protects the internal organs of the whale from sharp objects. Ambergris is passed like fecal matter and the parts which are too large to pass through the intestines are passed as whale vomit. But the theories remain unresolved.

Vomit of whale (Ambergris)
Vomit of whale (Ambergris) | Image credit: Natural History Museum

What are the physical properties of Ambergris?

Ambergris is found in various shapes and sizes and often has lumps. It normally weighs from 15 grams to 50 kilograms. The molecules of ambergris are attracted to fat, and they are larger and heavier which makes the fragrance last longer. When freshly removed or expelled Ambergris has a strong fecal smell and initially, when the mass is dried off it emits a sweet smell. At first, it has a pale white colour, and gradually with oxidization, it turns to dark grey or black. 

The dark grey ambergris has silvery white parts on their surfaces and this is the first sign of oxidation. The precursor gradually hardens and crusty texture. Ambergris has a specific gravity this makes the substance float on water. This melts at about 62 Celsius and it forms a fatty liquid and then at about 100 Celsius, it turns into a white vapor. Ambergris is soluble in ether and volatile liquids. 

To test the substance there’s a common method called the needle method. Heating a needle and placing it on the ambergris make it melt, creating a tar-like substance but people who are not familiar with ambergris are misled by different sea aromas. The more it floats on water, The more its fragrance grows. This is nonreactive to acid compounds. These substances take decades to mature The largest discovered Ambergris was discovered in Australia and weighed over 1000 pounds.

What Ambergris is used for?

Vomit of whale (Ambergris) is mostly known for producing perfume and fragrances like musk. Still, there’s a high demand for this substance. Ambergris is used to enhance the quality of other ingredients which are used to make perfume. This has two main special substances called Ambrein.

When Ambrein oxidizes it forms Ambroxide and Ambrinol. Ambroxide is a substance mostly valued by scientists. Ambergris was used as an ingredient in ice cream in the 16th century. In the middle ages, Ambergris was used as a medicine and this was even used as a remedy for the common cold. This has been used as a flavoring agent in Turkish coffee and hot chocolate in the 18th century.

Why Ambergris is this precious?

In history, the Portuguese had invaded the Maldives just because they had access to all the Ambergris. Later during the Bubonic plague pandemic, people carried around a piece of Ambergris to mask the air. Today chemists have discovered substances that have similar properties to ambergris but still, most high-end brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent use ambergris. 

The reason for the high price is, not all sperm whales have Ambergris. And extremely difficult it is highly valued. Ambergris is categorized according to their color. The white ambergris is the most precious and purest and the scent is unbelievably pleasant the least valuable ambergris is the black ambergris its mostly soft.

The different stages of ambergris
The different stages of ambergris

Does Whale vomit make the whales endangered?

From the 18th century to the mid 19s nearly 50,000 whales were killed for their oil, ambergris, and many other resources and this made them endangered. From the studies, a moratorium was instituted by the International Whaling Commission. 

The sperm whale population left is estimated to only be around 300,000 to 450,000 Although Ambergris wasn’t harvested from the sperm whales some countries restricted ambergris It is permitted to gather ambergris from the sea or beach because the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) views it as a naturally occurring waste product of sperm whales. 

Trading ambergris is legal in the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and Maldives while it is illegal in Australia (Governed Conservation Act in 1999 by Federal Law ), the United States (Endangered Species Act of 1973), and India (under the Wild Life Protection act 1972).