… Gary and Angela Williams were walking along Middleton Sands beach just outside Lancaster, England, when they caught a whiff of rotting fish. Instead of just moving along, the couple tracked down the smell, finding a large dirty-white lump on the sand. They knew what it was right away: a chunk of ambergris.
Also known as “whale vomit,” the putrid substance is produced by sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, and has been prized for centuries, still commanding big money from perfume makers. The couple wrapped the chunk of ambergris in a scarf and took it home. They are now consulting with experts about selling the 3.5-pound lump.
“It’s [got] a very distinctive smell, like a cross between squid and farmyard manure,” Gary told The Daily Mirror. “It feels like a rock hard rubber ball. Its texture is like wax, like a candle. When you touch it you get wax sticking to your fingers.”
They are not the first to win the ambergris lottery. In 2012, an eight-year-old boy found a 1.3 pound chunk of the stuff on a beach in Dorset, England, estimated at 60,000 dollars. In 2006, a couple in Australia discovered a 32-pound ambergris boulder, valued at 295,000 dollars. Beachcombers around the world collect much smaller clots of the stuff all the time, and sell it to ambergris brokers in New Zealand and Europe.
So what exactly is ambergris, and why is it so valuable? Scientist still aren’t sure about all the specifics, but they believe ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of male sperm whales, writes Cynthia Graber at Scientific American. Because some of the whales’ favorite snacks are squid and cuttlefish, which have hard, sharp beaks, it’s thought that their intestines secrete a protective, fatty substance around the beaks to keep them from injuring their guts and organs.
Eventually, the whale evacuates the beak-filled glob, though since researchers haven’t yet seen it happen they still aren’t sure which end of the whale it comes out. Sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University tells Graber he suspects the substance is defecated. “Well, it smells more like the back end than the front end,” he says.
When it’s first released, ambergris is a mass of black greasy chunks that float on the ocean surface. Over time it congeals and becomes gray and waxy. The longer ambergris floats at sea exposed to the sun and salt water, the more it develops “sweet, earthy aromas, likened to tobacco, pine, or mulch,” according to Graber. Eventually the lumps wash ashore.
That scent is probably what led people in the Middle East to use it to spice their food and as medicine centuries ago. It also led ancient Egyptians to burn it as incense and the Chinese to call it “dragon spittle fragrance.” … read more —> http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/