Monday, January 23, 2012

Apple #567: Ambergris

In keeping with my previous entry whose subject was inspired by a book I was reading, I thought I'd investigate another topic similarly inspired. I've been reading Moby-Dick. Slowly, about three pages a day, since October. If I had to read many more pages at a time, I'd have given it up long ago. But I'm determined to make my way through it for once.

Actually, I know I'd never have made it this far without the aid of Matt Kish's book of illustrations (pictured above right). I read about three or four pages of the novel at a time and then reward myself by looking at the illustrations that correspond with the pages I've read. My copy of Moby-Dick (above left) is not the edition he used when he drew his illustrations so the pagination is slightly off. But the difference is negligible. I happen to know Matt from my bookstore days, but even if I didn't I would still recommend his book of illustrations as an invaluable aid in reading the original.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

I recently read the chapter about ambergris. It's such a mysterious substance, and I have to admit, I didn't quite believe Ishmael's explanation or description of it. So I thought I'd find out for myself.

I don't think Ishmael would take this amiss. In fact, I think that looking up the information outside of the narrative would be perfectly in keeping with the book.

Anyway, here are a few facts about ambergris:

  • Ambergris is a waxy substance that originates in a sperm whale's stomach. 

This is a sperm whale mother and her calf. Sperm whales are named for the material in their huge skulls called spermaceti, which is a gooey substance when wet and waxy when dry. Scientists still aren't sure what it's for, but they suspect it helps the whales retain their buoyancy.
(Photo from Amazon AWS)

Males can grow to be 50 meters long and weigh 50 tons. This diagram gives you a good idea of the size of a sperm whale.
(Illustration from National Geographic)

    • Sperm whales eat giant squids. Giant or colossal squids, by the way, happen to live in the very deepest waters and the whales have to dive down to get them. The spermaceti might have something to do with enabling the whales to dive that deep.
    • Squids have beaks. The whales can't digest the beaks, so they stay in the whale's stomach. The beaks are pointy and sharp, and they look remarkably like parrot beaks.

    The beak of a giant squid, up close. The beak functions as the squid's jaws and mouth, the thing it uses to clamp down on its prey. The beak of a colossal squid is about the size of a man's hand.
    (Photo from Te Papa's Blog)

    This fellow is showing the location of a squid's beak. This is not a giant squid but a Humboldt squid, but it keeps its beak in the same place.
    (Photo from KATU News)

    • As the squid beaks get sloshed around in the whale's stomach, they scrape the insides of the stomach. (Cuttlefish beaks have the same effect, by the way.) The stomach's reaction to this irritation is to produce ambergris.
    • I can't find a very good explanation of ambergris' function in the whale's stomach. Is it a protective coating? Something to encourage the whale to expel the squid beaks? I'm not sure. One site says that ambergris is "a cholesterol derivative."
    • That's probably the best answer available. Scientists don't know much about sperm whales in general. Because the whales spend most of their time swimming at such distant depths, it's very hard to study them. So a lot of what we "know" about sperm whales is guesswork at best. Our theories about ambergris are mostly that: theories.
    • Somehow the whales expel the ambergris, either by vomiting or by excretion. It floats around in the ocean until it gets washed up on shore as a black, thick, foul-smelling liquid. Like, run-away-it-stinks-so-bad. Like, pew-that's-cow-manure-plus-something-fishy bad.
    • But once it's dried ("allowed to age" is how it's delicately put) its fragrance changes completely. It's still a bit musky but it also takes on a lighter, mossy fragrance. Altogether, people find the scent of ambergris so velvety and enchanting, they only want to smell it more.
    • Once it's dried, ambergris can be white, ash-gray, yellow, or black.
    • The word "ambergris" comes from the French for "gray amber."

    What black ambergris looks like. This ambergris washed up on shore around or near New Zealand. Looks a lot like regular stones, doesn't it?
    (Photo from

    • The lighter-colored the ambergris, the better the aroma, and the higher its value.
    • Ambergris has been used, most obviously, in perfumes. It is reportedly the slowest of perfume materials to evaporate, which means it holds its scent for an incredibly long time. Queen Elizabeth I used to perfume her gloves with ambergris.
    • Ambergris has also been used as a type of glue. It even used to be used in cooking. Dissolved in wine, ambergris is said to produce a heady aphrodisiac. Louis XV enjoyed foods flavored with ambergris.
    • Trade in ambergris is now banned in several countries to discourage whaling. But people do still find it on shore, and the sale of found ambergris does continue. 

    A few years ago now, this woman found a huge lump of ambergris on South Australia. Ambergris is pretty light-weight for its size, but this hunk is so large, it weighed 15 kg. Its value was estimated somewhere around $300,000.
    (Photo from Laputan Logic, original source unknown)

    • If anyone is selling large quantities of ambergris perfume, chances are they got it commercially, which means they got it from a sperm whale that was killed and harvested.
    • Part of the reason ambergris is so valuable is because it is so rare. Not only is whaling banned in most of the world, which thus reduces the amount of ambergris on the market, but its occurrence to begin with is not all that common. One source says that "approximately 1% of the population" of sperm whales produces ambergris. So even if you did hunt down all the sperm whales, chances are, you wouldn't find ambergris inside most of them.

    [imagine a photo of a small bottle of ambergris here]
    Small bottle of a tincture of ambergris. "Tincture" means it's been dissolved in alcohol. The liquid is a pale gold color. The person who made this says she uses only beach-found ambergris. She sells her ambergris tincture for $85 per 10 ml bottle.
    (I would link to the photo but she says her entire site is copyrighted and she doesn't want anyone to use anything whatsoever from her site. So you'll have to go to her site if you want to see what an ambergris tincture looks like.)

    • Synthetic ambergris scents are used in perfumery today, perhaps most famously as one of the scent components in Drakkar Noir (and in another men's cologne, too: Cool Water). I wouldn't say that synthetic ambergris smells like Drakkar Noir, but it may be one of the notes in that cologne's overall scent.

    Drakkar Noir: a whale of a cologne? Har har har!
    (Photo and cologne available from Amazon)

    • One of the reasons I wanted to do this entry is because I have been wondering, the whole time I've been reading Moby-Dick, how much I could trust Ishmael (or Herman Melville). Has what we know about sperm whales changed a lot since that novel/scientific treatise was written? Am I taking in a lot of outdated, now factually incorrect information?
    • I am happy to report, at least as far as the information about ambergris goes, Ishmael was absolutely on the money. In fact, in some ways, he provided more facts about ambergris than I did. Here are some excerpts about ambergris:
    "Dropping his spade, [Stubb] thrust both hands in[to the dead sperm whale's stomach], and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, woth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist.
    . . .
    "Though the word ambergris is but the French compoud for grey amber, yet the two substances are quite distinct. For amber, though at times found on the sea-coast, is also dug up in some far inland soils, whereas ambergris is never found except upon the sea. . . . ambergris is soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it in cooking. . . . Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.
    . . .
    "By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. . . . I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb thought might be sailors' trousers buttons; but it afterwards turned out that they were nothing more than pieces of small squid bones embalmed in that matter."
    • Could Ishmael be the world's first Apple Lady?

    Merriam Webster, ambergris
    Lexicus, definition of ambergris
    Online Etymology Dictionary, ambergris, identification 
    Tony Burfield, Ambergris Update, Feb-Mar 2005 
    National Geographic, Sperm Whale 
    Oceanic Research Group, Sperm Whales: The Deep Divers of the Ocean 
    Enchanted Learning, Sperm Whales


    1. Fascinating!

    2. I recall being highly confused by the concept of ambergris when I first read Moby Dick as a child, some 20 years ago. Thank you for elaborating on this topic - very strange and coveted stuff!

      1. Thanks for the compliment! I'm impressed that you first read Moby-Dick when you were a child. Kudos to you!

    3. Nice to know whale shit had so much value.


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