Ambergris: The prized squid parts whales don’t want
You might not believe it, but the results of indigestion were once worth a ton of money. Well, not your indigestion, nobody wants that, because you’re not eating enough squid beaks to make a material called ambergris. Sperm whales, on the other hand, make this amazing material in their guts which humans have prized as an aphrodisiac, plague replant and even perfume fixative. It once sold for thousands of dollars an ounce, none of which helps the whales very much.
Digested and rejected
Ambergris has been found washed ashore in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 15 grams to 110 pounds. By the time it’s washed ashore, it’s usually hard with a crusty or waxy color, and is even capable of fossilization. It’s not a mineral though, as fresher samples are fatty, soft and stinky, hinting at its origin in the irritated gut of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). When the whales are gobbling squid, their hard beaks don’t always go down as easily as their soft bodies, and so the whale will generally try to cough or vomit the beaks back up. If it’s too far down it’s digestive tract, the beak gets coated in a greasy substance to ease it’s eventual ejection along with the whale’s poop.
While this all sounds rather unsavory, the hardened clumps of ambergris have a much more pleasant smell than you’d assume. It’s been burned as an incense since Ancient Egypt, even being added as a scent in cigarettes. During the Black Plague in 14th-century Europe, people would carry a pellet of ambergris on a necklace, hoping the smell would ward off any foul air they thought carried the plague (no word on if the smell repels plague-infected fleas.)
More recently, ambergris was in demand as a perfume additive, driving it’s value up immensely. Perfume makers used it as a fixative in their recipes, helping the perfume stay on the body longer while at the same time lending some of its earthy odor to the mix. Demand has diminished in recent years, as chemists have been able to replicate the preservative qualities of ambergris with ambroxan. This is on top of a ban for its sale in the United States since the 1973 Endangered Species Act, preventing sales of a product derived from endangered species like our gastrically distressed sperm whales.
Source: What's Ambergris? Behind the $60k Whale-Waste Find by Johnna Rizzo, National Geographic News