Gray Amber is Whale Vomit

Ambergris, ‘gray amber,’ is a greasy waxy substance that the Sperm Whale either eliminates via fecals, or regurgitates. Floating at sea to wash-up of distant shores perhaps years later, the substance is exposed to the elements of sun and water. The more it ages this way, the more highly prized it becomes.

Ambergris is the aggregate secretion of the bile glands into the intestine of a sperm whale, expelled as a solid mass. The indigestible parrot-like beaks of squid (a favorite food item of sperm whales) are commonly found embedded in ambergris so it is theorized that this greasy substance encapsulates the indigestible sharp and bony irritants and facilitates easier elimination.

Beak of the Giant or Colossal Squid, Commonly found in Ambergris

(image source)

Sperm whales eliminate ambergris infrequently via normal fecal spoors unless the mass is size-prohibitive. In that case they can regurgitate it. Ambergris is sometimes called ‘whale vomit’ for this reason.

Ambergris, Regurgitated From the Intestine of a Sperm Whale

(image source)

Ambergris itself has an earthy sweet odor and changes its nature over time. Freshly-eliminated ambergris has a distinct fecal odor to it but with the passage of time and exposure to the elements, it changes to a gentler odor described as similar to the non-pungent odor of rubbing alcohol. The longer ambergris floats at sea and ages, the more valuable it becomes. Like wine, ambergris improves with age.

Uses of Ambergris

Used for a variety of purposes in the past but mainly it is used as a fixative for expensive perfume, similar to the way animal musk glands were formerly used. The ability of ambergris to effectively hold (or ‘fix’) the scent of the rare oils and resins of the fragrance in solution is superior and much longer-lasting to alcohol-based perfume in the same context. The perfume scent lingers on the wearer for a longer period of time with a non-alcohol odor.

The inability to obtain a steady and reliable supply (and similar quality) of this rare naturally-occurring substance is historically part of the exorbitant cost of high-end fragrances. Synthetic substitutes are used these days for emulating the same purpose.

Other uses for ambergris over history include ancient Egyptian incense, and as a food flavoring. In Europe during the Black Plaque it carried on the person where it was thought to be a Black Plague preventative due to its pungent scent which effectively masked the odor of death and decay. The stench of death was thought at the time to be the main vector of the disease. Drowning-out the foul stench with a pleasant odor was deemed to be an adequate preventative. Even today, ambergris is used for scenting albeit for cigarettes, in modern Egypt.

Ambergris was typically not used in fragrances in America because of legal issues concerning the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and even today, due to the potential protests of Animal Rights interests even dispite the fact that this law was challenged and effectively overturned in 2001. It was determined in this challenge that ambergris is not directly a byproduct of the whaling industry but instead, is a substance which whales eliminates naturally and thus, decreed to be exempt from this statutory protection law.

Specimens of ambergris are collected ‘in the wild’ washed-up on beaches and shores of places such Brazil, Africa, China, India, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, among others locations.  Ambergris is also sometimes found floating at sea anywhere in the Atlantic. Its value varies based upon quality (age, potency, etc.) and has in the past commanded a price of upwards of $10.00USD per gram.

(image source)

A very expensive piece of flotsam vomit indeed.

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15 Responses to “Gray Amber is Whale Vomit”
  1. Authoress Terry E. Lyle Says...

    On December 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Now I’ve heard it all…Wow….This is unbelievable.

  2. Rinkal Desai Says...

    On December 15, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

  3. jaysonv Says...

    On December 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Nice article very informative.

  4. Faith Hodge Says...

    On December 15, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    At first I thought , Oh I can’t read this but I was compelled with intrigue and read it all! Unbelievable! Very expensive stuff. Very well presented post. Thank you for sharing.

  5. qasimdharamsy Says...

    On December 15, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Very Nice…thanks for sharing…

  6. Brenda Nelson Says...

    On December 16, 2009 at 12:19 am

    another good reason not to hunt whales if you ask me (as if we needed any reasons NOT to hunt whales)

  7. Reilley Says...

    On December 16, 2009 at 6:19 am

    And honey is bee vomit. ;)

  8. Lauren Axelrod Says...

    On December 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I remember hearing about Ambergris in Hannibal when he created a perfume for Clarice. I think there’s an endangered species act that keeps this out of US.

  9. catlord Says...

    On December 16, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Yes, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 which was overturned in 2001. Ambergris is permitted for import/export/possession etc. except for possible protestations from the bunny-hugger sect and the fact that synthetic substitutes exist.


  10. Glynis Smy Says...

    On December 16, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I am just so glad I ate before I read this :) Very interesting.

  11. Yovita Siswati Says...

    On December 17, 2009 at 7:02 am

    Intereting article. This is new to me.

  12. thuanynguyen Says...

    On December 29, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Great information

  13. Francois Hagnere Says...

    On December 30, 2009 at 5:54 am

    Very well researched article! Whales are an endangered species.

  14. jenny lao Says...

    On January 25, 2010 at 4:42 am

    I would like to know if there are any interested buyers for genuine Ambergris.
    My friend has in possession genuine ambergris and we are looking for genuine buyers.
    please contact me.

  15. Roger T Says...

    On September 27, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I have a whale vomit and would like to sell it. Any interesting or potential buyer want to buy it, please contact me on my email,

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