At $24,000 per pound this sperm whale grease is 16 times more valuable than gold

It is mysteriously called ‘ambergris’. It is very rare hence its value. It is also called ‘ambergrease’ or ‘grey amber’. It is solid, waxy and flammable and it resides in 1-5% of the digestive tracts of sperm whales. It is formed by the secretion of bile from the whale’s intestines. It is believed that the whale surrounds sharp objects that it has ingested such as octopus beaks to protect its digestive tract. They are sometimes found inside a beached whale as occurred in this instance (recent Live Science report) or they are seen floating in sea or washed up on beaches.

The chunk found in the Canary Islands inside a dead, beached sperm whale weighed about 21 pounds (9.5 kilograms) and could sell for approximately $550,000, according to The Guardian, which first reported the story.

Sperm whale ambergris. Image: MikeB. The ambergris image is from Wikipedia and used here under their license.

When the latter occurs, it is because the ambergris has been passed like feces. It is believed that if the lump is too large to pass as described it might be vomited up. A lump of amergrease can float in the oceans for years before washing up.

Ambergris is found primarily in the Atlantic Ocean and on the coasts of South Africa; Brazil; Madagascar; the East Indies; The Maldives; China; Japan; India; Australia; New Zealand; and the Molucca Islands. 

So, what makes it so valuable to the human race? It is highly valued in the perfume business! Ironic that an object which frankly looks a bit unpleasant can perform the task of making someone more pleasant.

Apparently, the substance has been used for hundreds of years as it helps a perfume stick to the person’s skin. You’d have thought that over those hundreds of years that humankind would have been able to use their supposed intelligence and scientific skills to make a desirable and viable substitute but some manufacturers still prefer this natural grease.

There are potential legal issues surrounding its use a sperm whales are protected under CITES a failed, multi-country treaty. The acronym stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species”. It is a failed treaty as the international trade in animals and their body parts which are meant to be banned under the treaty is worth billions of dollars!

Sperm whales were horrendously exploited from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century when up to 50,000 were killed annually for their ambergris, whalebone and oil. They became endangered and are protected. Currently there is a belated commercial whaling moratorium. In order to help protect the sperm whale many countries ban ambergris despite the fact that it is not ‘harvested’ as it is a waste product. It is not covered by CITES as a ‘derivative’.

However, it is illegal in Australia, the US and India. It is legal in the UK, France, Switzerland and Maldives as per Wikipedia.

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