Sperm Whale’s vomit or Ambergris, debunking the age-old mystery
A closer look at the truth behind the vomit of whale and Ambergris. Whale vomit remained a mystery for many years and intrigued many to seek answers.
The fact that whale species are the largest animal on this planet may fascinate a child but to an adult, it is just another piece of information that we are already aware of. Also, another interesting whale fact includes it not being a fish but a mammal instead. But don’t worry this article is not your regular dose of a list of whale facts but instead, we will dig deep upon a sperm whale incident that happened recently. It is related to the phenomenon that involves Whale’s vomit/fecal discharge(but not specifically) to produce a rare substance called Ambergris.
About the incident
On 1st June 2021, some 35 fishermen spotted a sperm whale(Physeter macrocephalus) carcass near the Gulf of Aden. Inside the carcass, they found Ambergris worth $1.5 million (approx 11 crores). Ambergris is also commonly referred to as ‘Whale vomit’ or ‘Whale poop’ but this notion is not accepted by all. According to experts, this substance is produced inside the whale’s intestines and is not vomited out as a waste substance. It is used since ancient times but currently, it is used as an ingredient in expensive perfume manufacture. Before ascending deeper, let’s familiarize ourselves with a basic outline of a sperm whale.
Sperm Whales- Their name is just a facade
Unlike their names, they do not produce sperms (whale semen) but instead on their heads contain an organ called spermaceti (contains waxy liquid)and hence its name. It is the largest toothed whale on the earth with an enormous square head (distinguishing feature), males being longer than females so there is a difference in sperm whale size. The sperm whale can dive straight up to 350 meters and can remain within the waters for an hour-long period. The whales are found almost all around the globe and travel in a group of 15–20. But sometimes a solo male travels far and is found wandering around in the polar region. Sperm whales are not exploited solely for spermaceti but instead, they produce a rare substance which is our actual topic of discussion.
Ambergris- Floating gold in the ocean
What is Ambergris- It is a waxy, flammable solid substance that has long-lasting fragrance properties.
It is a rare digestive end product in sperm whales. It is considered one of the strangest natural substances found on earth. It is rare since it is found only in 1–5% of the whale population.
It has been used since ancient times but in some countries the trade is illegal. The fossils date back to 17.5 lakh years and it is estimated that humans have been using this rare substance for more than 1000 years now.
It is also called the treasure of the sea.
Formation- Whale vomit or Faecal matter
Sperm whale devours high amounts of cephalopods (eg- Cuttlefish, Squids), and most of the time the undigestable materials that could hinder the digestion are vomited out beforehand.
Similar to ruminants, whales too own four stomachs and the food is digested from moving through one stomach to another. Sometimes, due to their voracious feeding patterns, the stomach is filled with non-digestive squid remains. These remaining partially digested substances from a glittering substance in any of these stomachs (grow over many years) and later it is vomited out in the ocean. But according to experts, this unloading is not always Ambergris.
According to a published paper from the University of Chicago Press, claims that whale vomit and Ambergris are two different things. Rarely, the indigestible material while moving through the stomach transforms into ambergris under many complex processes and chemicals such as Darasal squid beaks, triterpene alcohol compound, etc, which is found in sperm whales only.
Now the answer to the question if it really is the product of vomit or not?
The answer to this is quite conflicting. Richard Sabin of Natural History of Museum says, ‘Based upon recent discussion with colleagues around the world, I lean towards the theory that ambergris forms in the intestines and passes along with faecal matter, forming an obstruction in the rectum.’
While others believe that whales regurgitate the mass into the ocean.
Application of this rare substance
Ambergris is an important constituent of perfumery believed to be whale vomit perfume. Ancient greeks used it for increasing the intoxication strength of wines. During the black death pandemic( Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353), people rubbed Ambergris on their skin for protection from the plague.
Even a small stone of Ambergris can stay fragrant for around 300 years. The description of its smell is rather difficult but those who had the rare chance, describe its odor as sweet and earthy. In eastern societies, Ambergris is used in medicine potions and spices while in western societies it is used in high-quality perfumery. But due to its rarity, it is now replaced with synthetics.
Ambergris though rare is still found on the coasts of China, Japan, Africa, and the American continents. Sometimes also found on the tropical island of the Bahamas.
Status of Whale conservation and Ambergis trade laws
Before whaling (an act of capturing/killing whales for oil, flesh, bone, etc) the population of whales was around 11 lakhs but it has now diminished to around 3 lakhs only. This practice was performed a decade ago on large scale but currently, there are different sets of laws for the regulation of collection and sales of Ambergris in different parts of the world.
In Uk and Europe, there is a complete prohibition on the trade of living substances of Whales and Dolphins. But the ‘Convention on Internation trade in Endangered species (CITES)’ considers Ambergris as a “waste material” which allows its collection from beaches as a legal activity. Some scientists advocate for the increasing use of synthetic alternatives of Ambergris which will discourage the exploration of whales for resources.
In India, the sale of Ambergris is strictly prohibited under the provisions of the wildlife protection act, 1972. As in 1970, India declared sperm whales as an endangered species.
Also, in February 2020, in a United Nations summit organized at Gandhinagar (Gujarat, India), India also proposed the conservation of the Eastern tropical pacific sperm whale. It was the first time that during the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS COP 13) there was a proposal put forth for the conservation of any migratory species.