Ambergris is a waxy substance from the intestines of the sperm whale. It’s also commonly referred to as whale feces or whale vomit. It’s also worth a fortune. So much so, officials in the Indian state Tamil Nadu seized 8 kilograms of ambergris worth over a million dollars. During the sting operation, they also arrested two suspects caught with the substance.
A Rare and Expensive Substance
Ambergris is used to stabilize the scent of fancy perfumes. In some cultures, it’s in for medicines and spices. The substance is prone to washing up on the shores of Africa, China, Japan, and the tropical areas of the Americas. Fresh ambergris is black, soft, and smells foul, which likens itself to feces or vomit. However, when exposed to air, sun, and saltwater, it hardens, turns a lighter color, and grows a pleasant odor. When the ambergris appears on the shore, it’s often already hard.  Ambergris could earn about $25 per gram. Because of its value, finding ambergris is like striking gold in your backyard.
“We’ve seen these stories where fishermen communities have found ambergris and it completely changed their fortunes overnight, simply because they are in countries where it’s legal to trade them,” Sumanth Bindumadhav, senior manager at Humane Society International.
However, it’s illegal to trade under India’s wildlife protection laws, leading to the recent arrest. In European countries, it’s legal since the substance is classified as refuse. This sting operation on October 25 was part of a series of raids by wildlife officials. They posed as buyers to find and trap their suspects. This operation is one of many ambergris seizures in India.
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Save the Sperm Whales
Animal rights activists frown upon the growing black market ambergris trade, especially as it gains more awareness. This could lead to more people wanting to make a quick profit and harming sperm whales, a protected species in India.
“While there used to be a time where people would incidentally find ambergris floating around in the ocean, what it could lead to is people killing sperm whales in large numbers and looking for [ambergris] simply because the probability of otherwise finding it is so minimal,” said Bindumadhav.
Bindumadhav, among other conservationists, claims that eliminating the demand for ambergris and other animal-derived products is vital to solving this issue. “The value of animal articles needs to be driven down extensively. There have to be alternatives for these products in 2021.” 
Similar to India, the ambergris trade is illegal in the United States. Meanwhile, high-end perfumes like Chanel and Lanvin used the substance’s natural ability to stick their scent onto human skin. The pleasant smell of the hardened ambergris is often musky or sweet. Scientists have developed a synthetic version of the substance that most perfumes use, but ambergris remains a hot commodity in some parts of the world.
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The History of Ambergris
The ambergris trade originated in at least the Middle Ages. It was also used in 12th century China, where some believed it to be dried dragon spittle. The mystery of the substance was part of the appeal; many theorized where it came from, including seals, crocodiles, birds, or fish liver. While Arabic society used it for medicine as early as the ninth century, it became part of ice cream and punch recipes in the 17th century.
“It was a very exotic substance,” said Cristina Brito. He’s a historian and biologist based at NOVA University of Lisbon, Portugal. “So the fact that people didn’t know where it came from, and there were a lot of stories about it, increased its value.”
Readers of Moby Dick may already be familiar with substance. In a chapter dedicated to ambergris, Herman Melville wrote, “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!”
Despite all of the research, scientists are unsure exactly how ambergris forms inside the whale. However, they have proven that it comes from the backside of the whale, not the front. So the term whale feces is more accurate than whale vomit. But there is one popular theory by British marine biologist Robert Clarke who studied the matter for over 50 years. He explained that when the whales eat squid, the squid beaks can get lodged in the sperm whale’s intestines. This causes feces to gather around the blockages, until “eventually the rectum stretches until it breaks, causing the whale’s death, and the ambergris is released into the sea.” 
Can You Find Ambergris?
However, ambergris is legal in the United Kingdom, where an eight-year-old found a 1.3-pound mass of ambergris on the beach. It was estimated to be worth about $63,000. This, among other stories, led to people hoping to find more of the substance, but it’s an extremely rare occurrence. The substance only comes from a small percentage of sperm whales. It can float in the oceans for decades before finding shore. 
Plus, many people who think they’ve discovered ambergris discover that they found just some other gross-looking sea substance. Like rocks, rubber, sea sponges, lumps of fat, and sometimes — very unfortunately — dog feces. So if you decide to go looking, be careful of what you bring home.
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- “Ambergris.” Britannica.
- “Authorities Seize Whale Poop Worth $1 Million in Sting Operation.” Vice. Rimal Farrukh. October 26, 2021
- “A Brief, Fascinating History of Ambergris.” Smithsonian Magazine. Mark Wilding. September 2, 2021
- “’Whale vomit’ could fetch $70,000.” CNN. Gabrielle Sorto. April 14, 2016