£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?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Assistants Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Operational Administrator

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen ...

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum