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Odyssey science manager, Rebecca Clark, examines a rare piece of ambergris, a substance found in the intestine of one in every one hundred sperm whales.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

February 8, 2001
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

Today while visiting the cultural center in the town of Bikenabou, we were amazed to find a very large piece of ambergris on display, it was placed in the shell of a giant clam in the middle of the room. We asked the curator if she new what the substance was or where it came from. She replied "it is a tumor that came from the belly of a whale. It killed the whale and the whale washed up on the shore".

One of the most unusual and mysterious byproducts of the sperm whaling industry was ambergris. It is a grayish, waxy, buoyant substance, associated only with the sperm whale. It is believed to form around the beaks of squid to avoid irritation in the intestine. Squid are consumed in tremendous quantities, their beaks are chitinous and are resistant to digestion.

Whales were sometimes known to vomit up a lump in their death throws, or it was discovered when the whale was cut open on the flensing decks of whaling ships. What contributed to the extreme value of this peculiar substance was the fact that it was found in only one of every hundred whales killed.

Since the first whalers ruthlessly hunted the aristocratic sperm whales in their small open boats, finding a piece of ambergris meant fabulous fortune. A few of the more dramatic finds listed by A.Hyatt Verill were compiled over a seventy-three year period up until 1926, indicating that as much as $60,000 worth had been harvested from a single animal, such 'boulders' could weigh over 1,000 pounds. This was probably an exceedingly valuable piece of black ambergris, which is of superior quality.

Sperm whales were the mainstay of one of the most important 19th century commercial industries. Intrepid harpooners around the globe mercilessly plundered the oceans of their mighty sperm whale populations. Since the chase for sperm whales began, they have been described as the panacea for all mankind's ills. They provided food, medicine, leather, oil and numerous other products

Ambergris was incorporated into such products as cosmetics and love potions, headache remedies and flavoring for fine wines. Although its ancient uses have all but dropped away, it has not ceased to be prized and is still used in the manufacture of perfumes. Even today when synthetics are easily accessible for virtually every commercial chemical function, ambergris is still used when available.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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