A Fortune in Perfume Washes Up Inside Dead Whale

A sperm whale has washed up on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, with a very unusual cause of death. A huge piece of “floating gold” clogged its intestine, which ultimately ruptured.

Antonio Fernandez Rodriguez found the 9.5kg chunk of ambergris when he was trying to decipher how the beached whale had died.

Ambergris, known as “floating gold” or the “treasure of the sea,” is incredibly rare. There is a huge demand for it in the perfume industry. For centuries, scent makers have used the grey waxy substance as a fixative. A chemical called ambrein in the ambergris makes the scent last longer.

Although there are modern artificial substitutes, ambergris still sells for thousands of dollars a kilogram. This chunk is worth approximately $550,000.

The lump of ambergris. Photo: Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria


Only one animal produces ambergris

Fossil records show that the substance has been around for 1.75 million years. No one knew where the mysterious substance came from until the 1800s. Whaling showed that only one animal on earth produces it — the sperm whale. Even then, it only happens in about one in 100 sperm whales.

Sperm whales eat a huge amount of squid and cuttlefish, but cannot digest their beaks. Usually, they vomit these out, but very occasionally they make it to the whale’s intestine and bind together. Ambergris is secreted from the bile duct and coats the indigestible objects. Researchers believe this protects the whale’s organs.

In time, it forms “floating gold,” so-called because it is usually found floating in the sea after the whales excrete it. In this case, the lump of ambergris became too large and lodged in the whale’s intestine, eventually causing fatal sepsis.

Rodriguez was amazed when he found the ambergris. “The waves were washing over the whale. Everyone was watching when I returned to the beach but they didn’t know that what I had in my hands was ambergris,” he told The Guardian.

The dead sperm whale. Photo: Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria


Ambergris often still legal to sell

This substance was one of the reasons that sperm whales were so sought after at the height of the whaling industry. Their numbers became so depleted that they almost became wiped out. They remain a vulnerable species. The U.S., Australia, and India have banned the trade in ambergris to try and reduce hunting.

However, many other countries still allow it. Though sperm whales are in the most threatened category under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, it does not ban the sale of the rare substance, because it is considered a waste product.

Rodriguez told The Guardian that he want to sell the ambergris. Selling ambergris is still legal in the European Union. He wants to donate the money to the victims of the volcanic eruption on the island in 2021.

“The law is different in every country. In our case, I hope the money will go to the island of La Palma, where the whale ran aground and died,” he said.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.