What is yellowish-gray, comes after a whale, and is worth more than $1,000 per ounce? No, this isn’t the start of a corny joke; it is a legitimate question. The answer is whale poop. To find out why people are so eager to find and pay for something whales are so eager to get rid of, keep reading.
First of all, by way of clarification, we’re not talking about the poop of just any old whale. The highly-valued stuff is a waste product of the digestive system of a sperm whale. Its feces — more politely known as ambergris — is a solid, waxy, flammable substance. When freshly deposited by a sperm whale, it smells much like you might expect the dung of a whale to smell.
Surprisingly, ambergris is one of those things that improves with age. As it gets older, its odor is replaced with a sweet, earthy scent. Some say that it smells a lot like rubbing alcohol without the chemical scent.
Over the centuries, ambergris has been used as a food additive, incense, aphrodisiac, and medication. It is still combined with tobacco for smoking.
It is in the fragrance industry that ambergris really comes into its own. It is used by perfumers as a fixative that allows the fragrance of perfume to linger for a longer time upon the user.
This peculiar substance makes an appearance in the most famous whale book in history. In chapter 91 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, one of the characters cuts into the corpse of an abandoned sperm whale in search of ambergris. Melville devotes the chapter to the description of the substance, noting the irony that “fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”
Because it is so highly sought after, ambergris is among the most expensive commodities in the world. Its going rate is $50 per gram ($1,400 per ounce).
In 2020, a Taiwanese man stumbled across what he believed to be a black stone. It was, in fact, a 6 kg chunk of ambergris. This fortuitous finding fetched the man $6 million Taiwanese dollars (US$210,000).
Because the sperm whale is an endangered species, the possession and trade of ambergris is illegal in many parts of the world. In the United States, even picking it up if you find it on the beach is illegal, although there doesn’t seem to be much precedent for prosecution in such instances. For that reason, next time you are strolling along the beach, keep your eyes — and your nose — on the lookout.