Recently, I was contacted by a local family about their very unique find on a beach on Southwest Vancouver Island. Their email had the entertaining subject line of “Whale Puke – Hopefully?” and contained pictures of what they had found.
I was amazed at how they had narrowed down what the strange looking masses might be . . . ambergris (pronounced “amber-grease”; from the French for gray amber), a substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales. And . . . ambergris is extremely valuable; apparently worth up to $20,000 USD per kg. It has a musky, very distinct odour and has been used in perfume as a fixative (to stop it all from evaporating quickly). It has also been used as food flavouring and medicine. Apparently it was even believed to cure the plague. Yes, sperm whales used to be intensely hunted and the hope of collecting ambergris was one of the reasons why.
The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale species. It has a head up to 1/3 of its body (Physeter macrocephalus = big head) and can dive to depths of 3,000 m. We humans have so much to learn about whales that are far less deep diving. You can imagine what knowledge gaps there are for an animal that dives to such great depths and for so long; up to about an hour. (Click here for a detailed “The Marine Detective” posting on the sperm whale).
So how and why do sperm whales create ambergris?
It is believed to be caused by the beaks of the giant squid irritating the sperm whale’s intestines. However, ambergris may not be “whale vomit” at all, but rather, it may come with “whale poop”. Apparently, when “fresh”, ambergris smells more like it comes from the anus. Some scientists believe it does get regurgitated (vomited up) if the piece is particularly large.
Was the family’s mysterious material the highly valuable ambergris? It seemed possible. We have sperm whales off the B.C. coast and the material was resinous, less dense than water and looked like some of the images of ambergris I could find online.
They found two masses, each about the size of a goose egg. They dropped one and it fragmented and crumbled, some pieces darker and clearer than others. But, there were no bits of squid beaks nor was there a really distinct musky odour.
I wanted to be sure, so I contacted the wonderful Dr. John Ford, DFO’s head of Cetacean Research at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. He very kindly relayed a test that would prove whether it was the highly prized ambergris – or not. If you heat a wire or needle to red hot and stick it into ambergris to about a centimetre’s depth, it melts into an opaque liquid the colour of dark chocolate and leaves a tacky residue on the wire/needle.
When I carried this out, the material did melt and leave a residue but it was a lighter brown material. It did not melt like chocolate. There was a distinct sizzling sound and a small puff of smoke. There was still no distinct musky odour.
So what could it be? I decided to take about a teaspoon of the crumbs and melt them down and, when I saw the result, I had an idea. The material was oily, it melted easily, it had small dark flecks in it. Why – it looked like used cooking oil!
Not ambergris but – cooking grease?!
It’s my best guess to date. That a boat somewhere out a sea, dumped cooking oil. It solidified and got rolled around on the beach, rounding it and pitting it. Why were there two masses of about the same size? I have absolutely no idea. Stay tuned and feel free to offer any hypotheses.
Click here for photos of the mystery substance and the results of the diagnostic tests.
Click here for my bundling of links on B.C.’s sperm whales – includes video, sounds, information about the historical whaling of sperm whales and articles about ambergris.
Article related to finding a high-quality synthetic alternative for use in perfumes. UBC Press Release: April 5, 2012; “How to make high-end perfumes without whale barf”