It’s Valentine’s Day, when one’s thoughts should naturally turn to love and romance — or the pronounced lack of same in one’s life, if such is the case. But what’s actually on my mind at the moment is, well, whale vomit. I kid you not. A few weeks ago I read a fascinating item at BBC News about an Australian couple who picked up a big lumpy rock on the beach at Streaky Bay, located somewhere in southern Australia. But this wasn’t the usual flotsam and jetsam that washes up on most beaches. It turned out to be a very rare material known as ambergris, sought after as an ingredient in high-end perfumes because of its sweet, musky odor. It’s so exotic that ambergris is worth about $20 per gram. The lump in question weighed about 14.75 kilograms, which means that the nice beach-combing couple could pocket as much as $295,000. Not bad for a leisurely stroll on the beach.
My fascination with the topic stems from the fact that this coveted, exotic aromatic resin actually starts out as a foul-smelling black bile in the gut of the giant sperm whale, supposedly as a digestive aid. (Whales don’t have access to Tums or Rolaids out there in the middle of the ocean, which might explain why a whale suddenly turned up in the Thames River in England, looking for the local chemist’s shop. Or not…) It’s believed to be associated with the undigestible beaks of the whale’s principal food, the common cuttlefish, and squid. In fact, it’s a bit like gallstones. Because it’s composed primarily of ambrein, a derivative of cholesterol, scientists believe the stuff is produced in response to the constant irritation caused by the sharp beaks in the whale’s gut.
When the gunk is finally expelled from the belly of the beast — along with whatever material the whale couldn’t digest from its last meal — it is little more than odiferous, black, viscous waste matter floating on top of the water. What turns it into treasure is time: several years of exposure to sun and salt water causes the vomit to oxidize and solidify, turning it into a compact rock with a kind of marbled waxy texture, and a very sweet, musky scent prized by perfumers around the world. It can float for years before being washed ashore, which is why ambergris is sometimes called "floating gold." (I wish I could say the same about the expellings of my chronically bulimic cat, who is plagued by hairballs, and yet still quite chubby, so the bulimia isn’t really working for her. Alas, Clio’s "offerings" are merely repugnant. On the other hand, she’s not in danger of extinction, while the days of the mighty sperm whale could be numbered, if present whaling trends continue unabated.)
As far as the science behind the stuff, two French chemists were the first to isolate, characterize and name ambrein — the principal ingredient — in 1820. Other elements include salt and phosphate of lime (probably from those unwanted squid beaks), as well as various alkaloids and acids, most notably benzoic acid, which also gives cranberries their tart flavor. It’s the benzoic acid that supposedly works with the ambrein to give ambergris its unique, long-lasting fragrant properties.
Tales of serendipitous discovery of pieces of ambergris can be found in almost every culture, including Japan, Hawaii, Madagascar, Morocco, Brazil, Ireland, and the Persian Gulf, to name a few. In the 1930s, an American sailor on Cape Code named Jeremiah Pratt scooped up a 28-pound lump of ambergris, which he sold to a New York perfumer, enabling him to buy a poultry farm and retire from his seafaring ways.
Not surprisingly, ambergris also found its way into fiction. It makes an appearance in Herman Melville’s whale of a tale, Moby Dick: a crewman named Stubb finds ambergris inside a dead whale, and Ishmael explains that while it might look like mottled cheese, it is actually used in perfumes. In The Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad is shipwrecked on a desert island and discovers a spring of smelly crude ambergris. (The Arabs of that period believed that raw ambergris, which they called anbar, emanated from springs near the sea.) Sinbad reports that the crude flows into the sea, where it is swallowed by giant fishes and regurgitated as fragrant lumps on the shore.
For those interested in perusing the history of ambergris in detail, I recommend a charming 1933 article published in Natural History Magazine called "Floating Gold: The Romance of Ambergris," by Robert Cushman Murphy, former curator of oceanic birds for American Museum.
Other fun facts I’ve discovered about this smelly substance:
1. Before 1000 AD, the Chinese called ambergris lung sien hiang, or "dragon’s spittle perfume," because they thought it came from drooling dragons slumbering on rocks at the seashore. The Japanese called it kunsurano fuu, or "whale droppings." Its current name derives from the French term ambre-gris (gray amber), which was used to distinguish the substance from true, yellow amber.
2. The ancient Greeks believed that adding ambergris to wine — or merely smelling the stuff prior to a drinking binge — would enhance the effects of alcohol.
3. Marco Polo was the first Westerner to correctly connect the origin of ambergris to sperm whales, but it wasn’t until 1783 that Western confusion on the subject was definitively put to rest, with the presentation of a paper by renowned botanist Joseph Banks before the Royal Society. (The paper was actually written by a German physician then living in London named Franz Xavier Schwediawer.)
4. The Arabs used ambergris as medicine for the heart and brain, while the Dutch and English once ate it with eggs for breakfast.
5. Ambergris is also supposed to have powerful aphrodisiac properties. Middle Eastern men and women, for instance, rub it into their hair and on their bodies to entice the objects of their affection. See? Whale vomit isn’t as far removed from romance this fine Valentine’s Day as one might think.
Above all, ambergris is rife with metaphorical potential, and not just for the obvious "one whale’s vomit is another man’s gold" wisecrack. (C’mon! You know you were thinking it!) We all egest a certain amount of psychological wreckage and roiling emotional waste over the course of a fully-lived life. It’s nice to think that time can turn all that gunk into something of great and lasting value. My pain isn’t different, after all. It’s golden.