by Julia Thiel
No one has ever seen a sperm whale excrete ambergris, although sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, admits that it is assumed the voiding takes place as fecal excretion, because when first cast out, he says, "Well, it smells more like the back end than the front."
Either way, huge chunks of ambergris end up floating in the ocean where, exposed to the sun and air, they harden and take on a distinctly sweet aroma. Which brings us to why anyone would want to replicate whale excrement: for hundreds of years, ambergris has been used in perfume, and because it's rare, it's also extremely expensive. While some of the scent qualities of ambergris were synthesized years ago, it's not just the smell that makes it valuable for perfume. As the Atlantic article puts it, "ambergris molecules are perfect for perfumes because they are both heavy and lipophilic, meaning they bind to fatty molecules like fragrances. The weight ensures the perfume stays on the skin; the lipophilic property ensures the perfume 'sticks' together." Scientists at the University of British Columbia have isolated enzymes in balsam fir tree bark that can be used to create a synthetic compound that replaces ambergris in perfumes.
If demand for ambergris decreases, the substance will become less valuable—but a Vancouver Sun article about the discovery quotes a food science professor who believes that small perfume manufacturers will continue to use true ambergris. The Sun reports that high-grade ambergris can cost up to $50 per gram, and earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek mentioned that it sells for about $20 a gram on average, while gold is $30 a gram. The Businessweek article also details the uncertain legality of the substance (due to concerns about poaching of sperm whales), and the resulting reluctance of perfume manufacturers to discuss whether or not they use it. It all sounds very cloak-and-dagger—and then there's the deadly competition among collectors. Several years ago a New Zealand collector was hit by a car driven by one of his main competitors and had to defend himself with a PVC pipe. "Neither man denied many details of the hit-and-run incident other than what they were both actually doing at the beach," Businessweek reported.
The possibility of stumbling across a chunk of ambergris worth hundreds of thousands of dollars has fascinated beachcombers for hundreds of years, as evidenced by the essay of a museum naturalist who constantly dealt with people hoping they'd found some (out of about 40 hopefuls, only one had real ambergris). While that essay was published nearly 80 years ago, hope lives on: nearly every comment on the Scientific American article is from someone who thinks he's found ambergris. No word on whether any of them had the real thing.