Three Omani fishermen struck an unlikely jackpot recently—they are set to become millionaires after they found a foul-smelling, icky, wax-like substance floating on the surface of the ocean. Khalid al Sinani and his colleagues found 80kg of whale vomit, worth more than 1.5 million dollars.
Sounds strange that a whale's filthy vomit can be so highly prized? Whale vomit, known as ambergris, is an invaluable asset for the high-end perfume industry.
This wax-like slurry is a secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of male sperm whales after they dine on squid to protect their sensitive stomach lining from the squid's pointed beak, which they excrete into the sea. Ambergris could float around in the ocean for years, until somebody spots the treasure. The whales excrete hundreds of pounds at a time, but the viscous, black ambergris breaks up into lumps when it hits the waves. The saline sea water oxidises grey-coloured ambergris, forming a white film coating around it. Hence, the longer it has been at sea, lighter will be the hue and higher the worth in the market.
Though it smells awful when excreted, it gradually acquires a light, sweet, earthy fragrance. In addition to lending base notes to perfumes, it anchors the scent components, making the fragrance last longer after it is applied on skin. Currently, ambergris is being used by many luxury-cosmetic brands such a Chanel and Lanvin. Since sperm whales are considered an endangered species, it is illegal to use ambergris the US. However, its demand in other countries, such as France, remains strong.
Its rare occurrence and availability make it even more valuable. Besides perfumes, ambergris also finds use as an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that Casanova, one of the most famous romantics in history, added ambergris to chocolate mousse to set off the mood. Many historians have documented the use of this elusive component by the Turks to treat male impotence. Known for its medicinal properties, it is also used as a cure for cold, migraine, and heart and brain ailments. If you thought all this is beyond what can be done with a whale's excrement, hold the thought. Here's more! Historically, ambergris was used as a food-flavouring agent. Imagine whale puke in your food and cocktail and ice cream!
How do you identify
It is very unlikely that you might come across this piece of treasure, but what if you actually find it on one of your beach trips. How would you ensure that it is not just another lump of yuck? Heat a needle and touch the surface of the item. If it really is ambergris, the surface will melt immediately into a sticky, stringy black residue, some of which should stay on the needle. When the needle is heated again, the black residue should turn to white smoke. But only expert tests can confirm if it really is 'whale vomit'.