A foul-smelling lump of excrement can become sweet perfume, rather like a pig’s ear might become a silk purse. That is the case for a man in England out for a walk with his dog on a beach when he chanced upon what is known in the trade as ambergris, which is to say in the vernacular: whale vomit.
According to the BBC, Ken Wilman was walking along the edge of the sea at Morecambe when his trusty canine began snuffing at a stone-like object on the beach. When Wilman investigated and picked up the thing, he quickly dropped it. The BBC reported that Wilman said, “When I picked it up and smelled it, I put it back down again and I thought 'urgh.'”
But leisurely dog walks may have a way of making the wheels turn in the minds of some, so it was the Wilman did his research and determined that what he had found was a lump of ambergris: a substance prized by perfume makers. Going back to the beach, he retrieved the ambergris and has since sold the seven-pound chunk to a French dealer for approximately $50,000.
The foul substance is vomited up perhaps hundreds of miles away from shore. When it first hits land, it becomes much more pleasant over time as it dries in the sun. It floats in the sea perhaps for years after being regurgitated by whales and after exposure to sun and sea it becomes waxy and has a sweet smell. The perfume industry uses it to prolong the scent of perfume, even though substitutes can be had.
Ambergris is bile that develops in the innards of the sperm whale or cachalot, the species of whale the took Captain Ahab to his doom in Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick. The hard indigestible beaks of giant squid, or devil fish, have often been found inside lumps of ambergris. It is believed that the bile develops around the sharp beaks and thus protects the whale.
Beachcombers are being drawn to the Morecambe beach, perhaps seeking to cash in as did Wilman. According to the BBC, Morecambe lifeboat manager Mike Guy warned potential treasure-seekers away. "The tide comes in so very quickly that it catches people unaware, even people that know it."
In 2006, an Australian couple discovered a lump of ambergris that weighed more than 30 pounds and netted them approximately $295,000. Ambergris can be valued at $20 per gram. In the United States, it is banned because the sperm whale is an endangered species.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.