Couple find fortune in whale vomit on British beach

A couple of British beachcombers have just struck gold, in the slightly unsightly shape of a chunk of valuable whale vomit. Otherwise known as ambergris, the strange and stinky stuff is thought to be produced in the bile ducts of sperm whales to help them deal with spiky objects in their gut and throat, such as squid beaks. Once discarded by the whale, however, it becomes of the most valuable substances in the natural world, because it’s used in fancy fragrances to make the scent last longer.

And yes, depending on how much cash you splash on perfume, that does potentially mean you have been spraying sperm-whale spew all over yourself. In fact, it’s potentially worse than that, because the latest theories about how whales primarily eject ambergris have moved from oral to anal.

The origins of ambergris are something of an enigma, but according to Vera Thoss from Bangor University, writing in The Conversation, it starts as ‘a mixture of squid beaks, ambrein and another digestive product called epicoprostanol. Once expelled–usually as faecal matter but also through vomiting, hence the name–ambergris floats in the ocean, turning from a “lump of poo” that smells of faeces into floating gold that has incorporated the varied smells of the sea.’ Nice.

Another chunk of ambergris washed up at Hutt's Beach near Bunbury in Western Australia
Smelly, but worth its weight in gold: a chunk of ambergris washed up on Hutt’s Beach near Bunbury in Western Australia

Regardless of which end of the whale the stuff comes from, or what’s in it, or how ugly it is, ambergris is worth a pretty penny—not least because it can’t be farmed and nobody can predict when a lump of it is going to wash up. Gary and Angela Williams from Lancashire in northwest England, just happened to be in the right place at the right time to stumble across the super sick find in a quiet section of Morecambe Bay.

‘It was down a section of the beach where no one really walks,’ Mr Williams explained to The Mirror. ‘It smells too bad, though. It’s a very distinctive smell, like a cross between squid and farmyard manure.’ So, naturally, they proceeded to wrap the festering find in a scarf and took it home. A good decision as it turned out, since it might make them up to US$170,00.

It’s illegal to use ambergris in the production of perfume in some countries, including the US, since sperm whales are a protected species, but fragrances in France still contain it, and the couple have apparently also received lucrative offers from Australia and New Zealand.

But before anyone gets too excited and starts scouring the shore for more mammalian vomit, it’s worth remembering that it’s quite common for people to think they’ve found a stash of ambergris worth a fortune, only to discover that they’re actually handling a slab of solidified sewer grease.