£100,000 for whale vomit? That’s sick

Why is ambergris worth so much money? Simon Usborne holds his nose and finds out

A A A

There is some confusion about whether the waxy substance Ken Wilman and his dog, Madge, picked up from a Lancashire beach came from a whale’s mouth, as widely reported, or its bottom. We do know, however, that ambergris, mined by nature from the intestines of sperm whales, is highly-prized (Wilman’s piece could be worth £100,000). We know, too, that it’s present in many perfumes, intoxicates those who resort to violence in search of it, and can add depth, grated, to scrambled eggs.

Whales usually throw up what they can’t digest, including squid beaks. But, according to an authoritative paper by Robert Clarke, a late English marine biologist, in about one in 100 animals, stuff goes the wrong way. It gets stuck in the rectum, grows, incorporates other waste and bacteria, hardens, bursts the rectum, kills the whale and floats away.

By this unsavoury method, it would appear Wilman had in his hands a sort of poo rather than solid sick. Either way, stranger than ambergris itself is the way its scarcity and delicate scent have enraptured generations. For centuries, it has been used in incense, medicines and in perfumes, where it stabilises and enhances other fragrances.

Chris Kemp, a British biologist based in the US, is another ambergris expert. While researching his book, Floating Gold: A Natural (And Unnatural) History of Ambergris, he tried for months to infiltrate a shady black market in the substance, which occupies a legal grey area in many countries thanks to its links to an endangered species. Many perfume houses claim to use synthetic substitutes but, Kemp says from his home in Michigan: “I spoke to a French ambergris trader who claimed to sell enormous boulders to top perfumiers via middlemen. There’s clearly a big trade in it.” So big that, several years ago, rival hunters ended up in court after coming to blows as they descended on a large lump on a beach in New Zealand.

Wilman’s three-kilo lump is relatively modest. The biggest recorded was the size of a small car and weighed 455kg (to Wilman’s 3kg). It was sold in London in 1914 for £23,000 (about £2m in today’s money). But even small discoveries are rare. Kemp says he hears of two or three finds a year, including one in Bournemouth last summer.

Strangely, in the same way it’s strange that rich people have been known to use hair conditioner containing bull semen, and drink coffee from made from beans excreted by civets, ambergris is also a delicacy. Charles II liked it sprinkled on his eggs, a dish Kemp felt obliged to recreate. “It wasn’t pleasant,” he recalls. “It looks like pepper but has an unpleasant texture and weird greasiness. It also gets stuck in your teeth.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital