£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.”

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Development Engineer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of fl...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Operative - Oxfordshire / Worcestershire - OTE £30k

£12000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Field Sales Operative is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders