Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Whale Vomit?!

Mystery mass – ambergris? 3 inches wide (7.6 cm)

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”

26 Responses to “Whale Vomit?!”

    • jackiehildering

      Who doesn’t at $20,000 kg! Apparently, especially on our coast, you got to smell a lot of not-ambergris-poop-like stuff on the beach before ever being so lucky. Chances are so small of finding it. So many mysteries out there though eh Danica! Love your enthusiasm.

      Reply
  1. Bonniji

    I’ve read that they collect the Whale Vomit off the coast of
    the Andamen Islands , India, and use it for medicines. I guess
    there is underwater turbulence off one island that causes the
    whales to get dizzy and they vomit alot. Anyone heard of this?

    Reply
    • jackiehildering

      Thanks for this interesting question. I am very doubtful that the finds of ambergris are related to whale sea sickness but that current does play a role. Whales are highly unlikely to get sea sick and the ambergris is not vomit. Whale faeces or regurgitation is fluid and would break up very quickly in the water. The solid masses of ambergris that wash ashore in the Andamens would be a function of 3 things I believe – the number of sperm whales, the amount of ambergris they produce due to the giant squid in their diet and, highly significant I think, the current. Very likely the Andamens are a hot spot for ambergris due to how the current carries the floating masses to the islands’ shores.

      It’s a highly put forward “myth” however that it is due “whale nausea”. I found the following: “When whales are caught in fast currents and turbulent waters, they vomit a yellowish substance known as ambergris that gathers around the coasts. Used as a fixative in rare perfumes, ambergris has the effect of making other fragrances last much longer than they would otherwise. Apart from this, the Arabs used ambergris as a medicine for the heart and brain, and it was used in the Orient, as an aphrodisiac and as a spice for food and wine.”

      Indeed, lots of medicinal powers are attributed to ambergris and, as always seems to be the way with something rare, it is also used as an amphrodisiac.

      Reply
  2. Whale Bones -PG

    That would be pretty amazing if it was infact ambergris. Not a very common find by any means! Working in the Whale Interpretive Centre, it is interesting to hear how some of our geusts, as a retired whalers, would occassionally find ambergris. Do you know of any other marine species that is likely produce a product homologous to the ambergris produced by sperm whales? Just considering how there are many other species that feed on squid or other organisms that contain hard body parts that would be difficult to digest and remove there should be some, but I don’t know of any.

    Reply
    • jackiehildering

      Hello Whale Bones – Value your presence here! All I am aware of is that the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) also apparently produces ambergris. But . . . who knows what we humans have yet to figure out!

      Reply
  3. gillian Butler

    Jackie I am so much enjoying the ‘Marine Detective’ thank you (and Glen) for sharing for all your incredible photos and videos and knowledge. your passion and committment are asinspiring as ever!
    gxo

    Reply
    • jackiehildering

      Oh fabulous Gillian, really needed to hear that! I was just reflecting on whether I was crazy to put time into the blog and into writing about whale vomit! Whether it was “worth it” when there was so much “saving salmon” related work to do. And then . . . this comment from you. Thank you so much for being the messenger!

      Reply
  4. Robert

    That is really neat Jackie wen you told me about that i was imaganing some thing totally different!! But I gess that cooking grees makes sence. Now that I know about how amber grees I want some!! 🙂

    From Robert

    Reply
    • jackiehildering

      Can you imagine Robert – $20,000 per kg?!
      It is so wonderful to see you here. Feel free to bring my marine mysteries you superstar!

      Reply
      • Robert

        Hi jackie I have been searching but i dont have eny good ones yet alto i bet i’m going to find a really good one. 🙂
        Thanks for replying.

  5. Nestle H. C.

    Simply put some sample to pure ethanol. Genuine ambergris dissolves in it 😉

    Reply
    • jackiehildering

      How I love the potential brought on by the internet! Thank you Nestle. Trying this as soon as I can but am pretty sure we are dealing with cooking grease. Sounds like you house some unique expertise. Thank you.

      Next day: Tried the ethanol and have further confirmation – none of us here are going to get wealthy from ambergris anytime soon!

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    hi im from western australia and would like to now who buys the stuffxo and does small amounts count

    Reply
  7. esme

    hi,

    i am from the Solomon Islands. I have with me about 10kg of Whale vomit which was taken from a dead whale. i just want to know if anyone knows of whoever is interested in buying it at what price? I am looking for the best price.

    Reply
  8. George forward - whale vomit

    Hello I have found something along the beach with my dogs which ticks all the boxes of being whale vomit. Where do I go to find out it is or who do I contact. Thanks!

    Reply

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