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Ambergris
January 24, 2006 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Whale puke may not sound like the sort of thing that could make you money, but a 15kg lump of it found on a beach has made Australian Leon Wright and his wife more than a quarter of a million dollars overnight. Perviously discussed here, ambergris is essentially the vomit of a sperm whale. It has a scent like nothing else on earth and is used in perfume or as an aphrodisiac.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian (54 comments total)

 
Ambergris is an excretion from the Sperm Whale. It is found floating on the oceans or collected from the shores of many countries around the world. Ambergris is formed in the intestines of the sperm whale in response, it is thought, to irritation caused to the stomach lining of the whale from the sharp,indigestible, parrot-like beaks of squid.

How to turn a squid into quid!

Seriously though - who came up with this?

"See, I've found this whale barf - if we let it dry out for ten years, then we can make it into perfume!"
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 7:06 AM on January 24, 2006


@Olympian I always wondered the same thing about birds nest soup.

I saw a program where the harvesters climbed up a pole (with no handles) like, thirty or forty feet, go into a pitch black cave ledge, and feel around with their hands until they find a birds nest, then climb down with a wicker basket full of the things.

How would you know it was there, why would climb up in the first place, and how hungry would you have to be to eat something that is probably liberally festooned in bird crap? What's wrong with eating the freaking eggs?

Questions for our times, man.
posted by Swandive at 7:16 AM on January 24, 2006


I've got an idea that will make us millions. We'll need a really big ferris wheel and a lot of rope.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:20 AM on January 24, 2006


Herman Melville on Ambergris.

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!
posted by bardic at 7:21 AM on January 24, 2006


Swandive: And the nests they use are basically solidified bird snot.
posted by empath at 7:26 AM on January 24, 2006


"Forever Ambergris" is one of my favorite EC Comics stories. Unfortunately, trying to find a synopsis online nets me only references to the HBO adaptation, which I've never seen and therefore cannot vouch for.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:29 AM on January 24, 2006


You make me sick, I make music money!
posted by furtive at 7:32 AM on January 24, 2006


This line from Futurama always makes me laugh just thinking about it:

Biologist: I don't want your watch! You're covered in precious ambergris!

Kif: Precious Hamburgers?
posted by bigmike at 7:40 AM on January 24, 2006


Fascinating.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2006


I was going to post this, it's a really interesting subject.
posted by fire&wings at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2006


interesting... thanks
posted by pez_LPhiE at 7:59 AM on January 24, 2006


*burps*
posted by PenguinBukkake at 8:04 AM on January 24, 2006


*adopts a catching position*

If it works for whales, who knows what we could do with penguin puke?
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 8:06 AM on January 24, 2006


TUO, I was thinking the same thing. Has anyone tried puke from other animals? Or does it have something to do with the squid diet?
posted by shoepal at 8:09 AM on January 24, 2006


squid is tasty but way too chewy; krill is awesome
posted by PenguinBukkake at 8:12 AM on January 24, 2006


On the subject of the bird's nest soup - this cave is likely the one from the documentary Swandive mentions. Here you can see the poles climbed to reach the swallows nests. If you decide a nest-scavenging vacation is just what you need, be sure to check out this other cave while visiting Niah.
posted by jrb223 at 8:12 AM on January 24, 2006


Seriously though - who came up with this?

"See, I've found this whale barf - if we let it dry out for ten years, then we can make it into perfume!"


It makes no less sense than the seemingly improbable inventions of cigarettes, coffee, chocolate, or bread.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:20 AM on January 24, 2006


Seriously though - who came up with this?

As part of my job, I used to give a long scholarly presentation to high school students on whales and whaling. This question came up constantly with regard to ambergris. My standard response was simply that, at some point in human history, people tried everything.

It gets easier to understand if you see some ambergris. It's not puke-like. It sometimes washes up on the beach. and it's solid, greyish-brown, and slightly sweet-smelling. The smell may have given people the idea to use it for fragrance. Its power as a fixative is amazing.
posted by Miko at 8:22 AM on January 24, 2006


The thought of anyone using something that came out of a whale's stomach makes me want to throw up my scrambled eggs.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:27 AM on January 24, 2006


*claims weapons-grade pandemonium's thrown up eggs*

Anybody want some mefigris?
posted by Biblio at 8:31 AM on January 24, 2006


I say we force-feed the penguin a giant squid and see what we get.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 8:32 AM on January 24, 2006


It makes no less sense than the seemingly improbable inventions of cigarettes, coffee, chocolate, or bread.

That's a good point, especially given that (as Miko points out) the end product (ambergis) was probably used before anyone ever figured out where it came from in the first place.

at some point in human history, people tried everything

We still do - don't we?
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2006


Everything has already been tried? Aw.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:36 AM on January 24, 2006


We must have tried everything. Think about raw oysters; somebody had to pop open the first one and think "huh, maybe i'll eat it."

I suppose a lot of people were either killed or seriously injured by such experiments, like "hey, i wonder if I should eat this porcupine" or "maybe I'll try this mushroom."
posted by craven_morhead at 8:37 AM on January 24, 2006


I say we force-feed the penguin a giant squid

*shits himself, runs*
posted by PenguinBukkake at 8:40 AM on January 24, 2006


craven_morehead, I think a lot of your examples could be answered with the idea of humans watching animals.

Shore-dwelling human sees otter lolling happily about, cracking open shellfish and swallowing whole. Human tries it, likes it.

Also, foraging in the forest, human happens upon a deer eating a particular mushroom. Human tries it, likes it.

As for ambergris, I agree with Miko. People found it in a usable and appealing state, and later they started looking for it. Like gold. No one thought to themselves, "Hey, there must be a shiny yellow metal out there for me to hammer into wearable shapes". SOmeone found it and discovered that they liked it, and that they could shape it.
posted by oflinkey at 8:52 AM on January 24, 2006


Did you know that honey is bee vomit ?
posted by elpapacito at 8:58 AM on January 24, 2006


at some point in human history, people tried everything

that's more or less true.
Awhile back I was reading (offline so no links srry), about how in human history there has always been a small % would would eat, or try to eat, just about anything. Not because they where starving, but simply because. This behavior has allowed us to observe the effects, say of eating bird's nests, and deciding whether it was ok for human consumption.
tomatoes, which belong to the nightshade family, you eat one plant it kills ya, you eat another that looks similar and it is tasty andgood for you...
posted by edgeways at 9:01 AM on January 24, 2006


I often refer to honey as bee vomit, much to the dismay of my honey loving better half.
posted by shoepal at 9:03 AM on January 24, 2006


ambeegris!

(and to be totally off topic, I like the sound of "Mefigris" which I would define as a comment that is entertaining but clearly originated in the bowels of the user that spewed it onto the page. Comment Vomit!)
posted by shoepal at 9:07 AM on January 24, 2006


at some point in human history, people tried everything

Goat's milk, artichokes, and raw oysters. Either people were desperate, or it was done on a dare, because no sensible person would think to consume those things.
posted by Gamblor at 9:08 AM on January 24, 2006


edgeways: that's interesting. If I were more of a believer in evolutionary psychology than I am, I would suggest that what you cite is a strong reason for the survival of risk-taking as a personality characteristic. Some portion of those people would surely have died of poisoning; but some would gain advantage directly via the nutrients they discovered, and indirectly by the reward of the society they were in when the food value was made known. Maybe.
posted by Miko at 9:12 AM on January 24, 2006


I cannot see the word "ambergris" and not think of Mom yelling "Who smells like freaking porpoise hork?!"
posted by Gamblor at 9:14 AM on January 24, 2006


The posted links don't mention it but to obtain the aphrodisiacal qualities of ambergris, apparently you have to smoke it.
posted by beagle at 9:16 AM on January 24, 2006


Cha-Ching! There's about 500 dollars right there. Precious hamburgers.... drool....


posted by skallas at 9:26 AM on January 24, 2006


I've smelled ambergris before - a friend of mine was given a small piece of it as a birthday present. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever smelled. It was musky and slightly sweet and I could both smell and feel it. It's like a part of it resonates in the hindbrain. Like sex, I suppose... it makes sense to me that it can be used as an aphrodisiac as it's powerful and addictive. If you get the chance, I'd highly recommend smelling some.
Also, one thing that's always bugged me is this from the BBC link, "Banned in US under endangered species legislation" ...and the thing is that if you kill the animal, you don't get the ambergris, and since you find it on beaches, what's the deal?
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:30 AM on January 24, 2006


In the far future after the oceans dry up, whales will have long evolved into sand-like creatures. Their ambergris will be dry and powdery. It will be even more in demand then as it is now.
posted by skallas at 9:31 AM on January 24, 2006


Zack: You sometimes find it in the digestive tract of the whale. When 19th-century whalemen were 'cutting in', or processing sperm whales, one of the final steps was to take a cutting spade and open the large intestine and stomach to look for amergris. It's not always present, but it was worth so much that it was worthwhile to look.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on January 24, 2006


Like sex, I suppose... it makes sense to me that it can be used as an aphrodisiac as it's powerful and addictive.

Perviously discussed here.
posted by dgaicun at 9:49 AM on January 24, 2006


I wanna know after finding this ambergris, how did they find out it came from a Sperm Whale? They couldn't have witnessed it coughing one up..
posted by pez_LPhiE at 9:56 AM on January 24, 2006


the keyword here is "sperm", pez
posted by PenguinBukkake at 10:25 AM on January 24, 2006


Although buying or selling ambergris is illegal in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act, this site sells a tincture of natural ambergris that is certified "flotte": made from ambergris that was found in the wild rather than harvested from a whale's dead body.

I'm pretty tempted. The descriptions I've read (“humid, earthy, fecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant”) make it sound entrancing.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:58 AM on January 24, 2006


Miko - yeah, I'd realised that I shouldn't post while getting ready for work. On the bus I thought that that would be a lot of money for whalers, so what's a few less whales if I can make that much money? *sigh* I suppose that makes sense, in the usual twisted way.

Also - dgaicun. ummm.....what? You're quoting me and linking back to my comment?
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:00 AM on January 24, 2006


Checking for the ambergris didn't even really cut into their active whaling time. The usual method was to encounter a pod of whales, give chase in small boats, and catch as many as possible. Then the dead whales were rounded up and towed back the mother ship, where processing would ensue. Processing could take anywhere from a few hours to a full 36 hours or so, depending on number of whales and sea and weather conditions. Processing included stripping away the subcutaneous layer of fat, chopping it into small pieces, and melting it into oil right there on deck. Then you also had to dip out the liquid waxlike substance called 'spermaceti' from the whale's head. So this was a lengthy process.

There was a bit of a race agianst time, as the whale flesh would decay and be eaten by sharks while it was waiting to be processed, but the time pressure wasn't so severe that there couldn't be a quick ambergris check.
posted by Miko at 11:32 AM on January 24, 2006


"Who smells like freaking porpoise hork?!"

Looks sheepish, swims away.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:34 PM on January 24, 2006


A purple porpoise-sheep?
"Next week on Wild Kingdom, we explore the world of the wooly porpoise and watch as it barfs up ambergris. Lovely."
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:41 PM on January 24, 2006


Darnit ... when is the net going to finally get smell-o-vision? Isn't that about due?
posted by FlunkedFlank at 1:03 PM on January 24, 2006


My standard response was simply that, at some point in human history, people tried everything.

I believe it was Sam Kinison who had a bit about indians smoking every plant in the forest looking to discover weed. "Nope, that's not it! Try the next one!"
posted by FlunkedFlank at 1:08 PM on January 24, 2006


Also - dgaicun. ummm.....what?

Sorry, bad pun off the main poster.
posted by dgaicun at 1:18 PM on January 24, 2006


More pervious discussion of ambergris:
The effect of ambrein, a major constituent of ambergris, was studied on the sexual behavior of male rats. The rats were administered ambrein in doses of 100 and 300 mg/kg body weight. Male sexual activities were assessed by recording the erectile responses (penile erection) and homosexual mountings in the absence of female. The copulatory studies were carried out by caging males with receptive females brought into estrus with subcutaneous injections of estradiol benzoate and progesterone. The copulatory pattern of treated male rats (mountings, intromissions, ejaculations and refractory period), the pendiculations (yawns/stretches) and orientation activities towards females, the environment and themselves, were recorded. Ambrein produced recurrent episodes of penile erection, a dose-dependent, vigorous and repetitive increase in intromissions and an increased anogenital investigatory behavior, identifying the drug used in the present study as a sexual stimulant. It is conceivable from the present results that the ambrein-modified masculine sexual behavior in male rats supports the folk use of this drug as an aphrodisiac.

posted by dgaicun at 1:43 PM on January 24, 2006


does anyone else remember the encyclopedia brown mystery that involved ambergris? i swear it's one of my favorites and that word will always and forever be tied to reading that story.
posted by ronv at 1:51 PM on January 24, 2006


That's where I first learned about amergris, ronv. God bless Charlie Encyclopedia Brown.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:47 PM on January 24, 2006


So... how does one go about getting a smell of ambergris?

(does that name translate into "gray amber"?)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:36 PM on January 24, 2006


Well, first you find a sperm whale, then you Heimlich it...
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:42 PM on January 24, 2006


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