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What is Ambergris?

First and foremost, it is important to disclose the most intriguing aspect of Ambergris; Despite being recognised as extremely rare and valuable throughout history (ambergris was known and considered as an imperial trade article in Africa as early as 1000BC). No one to this day has ever seen this curious substance physically depart the sperm whale. There has been endless debate as to whether it leaves as ‘vomit’ or as faecal matter! Many research papers have alluded to the fact this is faecal and not vomit; this has (in recent years) been scientifically verified.

The sperm whale can consume up to a ton of fish and squid per day (mainly giant squid). Giant squid have sharp, parrot like beaks which can’t always be digested and can irritate the whale’s intestines.

Ambergris starts to form when the whale produces a fatty, cholesterol-rich substance as a defence, which coats and surrounds the beaks so that they are able to pass through the whale’s four stomachs without causing too much damage to the intestine walls. This process is similar to a grain of sand in an oyster forming a pearl! The waxy piece (also known as a ‘COPROLITH’) grows over time and is eventually expelled into the sea.

Ambergris is found at sea or on coastal shorelines all over the world. It can be 100kg + in weight and can be any shape, although it is more common to find egg shaped pieces which average between 100g and 1kg.

The history of ambergris

Since ancient times, ambergris has been used as an ingredient in medicines and perfumes. There are numerous historical accounts dating back to the 15th century, reporting of European sailors finding ambergris out at sea. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were no laws dictating who should own the ambergris found on beaches, and many pieces were sold or traded (legally or illegally) into Europe from overseas. At this time however, it is important to mention that this elusive product was generally obtained in relatively small quantities.

Finding ambergris on beaches is relatively rare, but when it does happen (or allegedly happens) it is usually newsworthy. When ambergris is found today it usually gives rise to online articles with headlines such as ‘WHALE VOMIT FOUND’ or ‘VALUABLE RARE SUBSTANCE DISCOVERED ON BEACH’ or even ‘FLOATING GOLD FOUND’. These headlines reflect an awareness that has always existed regarding the value of ambergris, and the interest that it can generate despite a significant lack of knowledge present within the general public. This misrepresentation in the media can mislead people when it comes to what ambergris can look like and how much it can sell for.

By the 16th century the contributions from Portuguese travellers and explorers started to become known in Europe (Costa, 2009), and ambergris was recognised as one of the most exotic novelties found in the Atlantic and the New World. The economic value of this natural product, as well as the lack of knowledge surrounding its origin, gave rise to fanciful explanations as to where ambergris came from (some of which prevailed for some time in historic explanations).

Although some writers believed ambergris came from whales, several others (e.g. Anonymous, 1842) attested that amber was produced at the bottom of the sea and rejected the ‘erroneous’ view that it came from whales:

Orta, G. (1987) [1563] – “Some have said it is whale sperm, and others say it is dung of a sea animal or it is sea foam, others have said a fountain discharged it from the bottom of the sea, and this one seemed better and closer to the truth”. Orta,(1987) quotes that “Avicena and Serapiam say it is generated in the sea (...) and when the sea is tempestuous it throws rocks out of itself and with them it tosses the amber, and this opinion is also according to the truth (….)”

Image credit BMMRO

By 1667, eighteen different theories existed on this matter, and various animals were considered producers of this substance – including seals, crocodiles and even birds. There were also several theories about the possibility of a vegetable origin (a detailed revision of the several possible origins of ambergris).

However, in the middle of the scientific revolution of the 19th century (Darwin, Pasteur et al) speculation on the origin and formation of ambergris was reaching its peak (Clarke, 2006; Read, 2013). Later, in the middle 20th century, ambergris was referred to as a “consequence of a disease that originated in the large intestine and was expelled once in a while in the animal’s stool” (Cruz).

Additional resources

Cameron Beccario has created a visualization of global weather conditions.

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This live visualisation collect real-time data and processes it to show as a globe of the earth. The map shows global weather conditions. Ocean surface currents and temperatures.

Visit our ambergris facebook group where you will find posts that can assist with identification.

Also check our identificaton page, there are a number of teast and image galleries that will help you identify your find.