- Some sperm whales produce ambergris – a clump of squid beaks and fatty secretions that scientists believe exits through the whales’ bowels.
- Some high-end perfumes use ambergris for a chemical it contains called ambrien, which suspends smells in the air, and for its own unique scent.
- Quality pieces of ambergris, which ambergris hunters snatch up as they wash ashore, can cost more than $US7,000 a pound.
Perfumers covet a rare kind of whale poop known as ambergris. Though it develops in the intestine of sperm whales, it produces a prized scent used in high-end fragrances.
Following is the transcript of the video:
This is ambergris. It might look like a rock, but it’s actually a rare kind of whale poop. And it’s not cheap. Per gram, ambergris can cost more than silver-30 times more.
If you’ve ever worn perfume, well, I’ve got some unsettling news. You may have misted yourself with animal waste. You see, for centuries, perfumers have been using ambergris to enhance their fragrances. Ambergris is essentially a clump of squid beaks bound by a fatty secretion. Over time, it balls up in the intestine of some sperm whales. And eventually …. Out it goes.
Now, in the strictest sense it’s not poop, but scientists think it likely exits the same way.
Christopher Kemp: “One way or another, a big boulder of ambergris is released into the ocean and then floats for decades, or who knows how long.”
In that time, the mass transforms from a sticky, dung-like substance into a hard, grey chunk. And this is what perfumers covet. For one, it contains a unique chemical called ambrein. It’s a fixative, which means it makes other smells in perfume last longer. But ambergris is also valued for something … more surprising: it’s smell.
Christopher Kemp: “It’s a bouquet of 20-30 chemical compounds that each have their own odor profile. One will smell sort of like mushrooms, one will smell a little bit like tobacco, one smells sort of like poop, one smells sort of like grass and hay.”
Sounds enticing, right? Apparently. Perfume designers use strong scents like these for the base note in their fragrances. And Base notes form the foundation of any perfume. They’re typically heavier, muskier smells, like what you get from a beaver’s castor sacs or – you guessed it – ambergris.
Roja Parfums, for example, has several expensive perfumes with base notes of ambergris like those in the Profumi D’Amore collection. They sell for around $US500 a bottle and are described as a “passionate love letter in fragrant form.”
And while ambergris has all the makings for a great perfume, what really drives up the price tag is how rare it is. Scientists don’t know exactly why, but only about one per cent of sperm whales produce the substance. In fact, researchers like Shane Gero who spend years studying sperm whales never see it.
Dr. Shane Gero:“I’ve been collecting sperm whale poop for 15 to 16 years, but I haven’t collected anything that looks like ambergris.”
In some cases, lucky beachgoers will stumble upon it. In 2006, for example, a couple picked up a 32-pound piece on a beach in Australia. Media outlets later reported it could be worth nearly $US300,000. But more often, ambergris hunters will get to it first. They track weather patterns and ocean currents to predict where it might end up. And once they find it, they sell it to brokers or perfumers for up to $US7,200 a pound.
Christopher Kemp: “This is like gold to them. This is a real commodity. So they take it very seriously. They can be a bit aggressive, muscular and they really guard their secrets.”
But the commodity’s high price isn’t the only reason they do it. In some countries like the U.S., buying, selling, or even collecting ambergris is illegal. That’s because sperm whales are an internationally threatened species.
Dr. Shane Gero:“Before whaling started there were over a million sperm whales, and now we’re down closer to a fifth of that.”
And while no whales are harmed in the collection of ambergris, Gero says it’s never a good idea to buy or sell products from an endangered species. But until we can replicate something that smells as good as whale poop, we probably will.
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