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Ambergris (// or //, Latin: Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, ambergrease or grey amber) is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.
Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, fecal odor. However, as it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency. Although Ambergris had been highly valued by perfumers as a fixative (allowing the scent to last much longer), it has largely been replaced by synthetics.
Ambergris occurs as a biliary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale's gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.
Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter. It is speculated that an ambergris mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit. It takes years for ambergris to form. Christopher Kemp, the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, says, “It is only produced by sperm whales, and only by an estimated one percent of them. Once expelled by a whale, it must float for years, then it must make landfall, avoid being broken into pieces by rough seas, and someone must find it. In other words, the odds of finding ambergris are extremely small.” The very small chance of finding ambergris and the legal ambiguity involved led perfume makers away from ambergris.
Ambergris can be found in the Atlantic Ocean and on the coasts of South Africa, Brazil, Madagascar, the East Indies, The Maldives, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Molucca Islands. In rarer cases, it can be found in other locations. Most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahamas in the Caribbean, particularly New Providence. Fossilized ambergris from 1.75 million years ago has also been found.
Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from 15 g (~½ oz) to 50 kg (110 pounds) or more. When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in color (sometimes streaked with black), soft, with a strong fecal smell. Following months to years of photodegradation and oxidation in the ocean, this precursor gradually hardens, developing a dark grey or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic. Its smell has been generally described as a vastly richer and smoother version of isopropanol without its stinging harshness. In this developed condition, ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926. It melts at about 62 °C to a fatty, yellow resinous liquid; and at 100 °C (212 °F) it is volatilized into a white vapor. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils.
Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a substance called ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool. Breakdown of the relatively scentless ambrein through oxidation results in the formation of ambrox and ambrinol, which are the main odour components of ambergris.
Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. Perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world. It is collected from remains found at sea and on beaches, although its precursor originates from the sperm whale, which is a vulnerable species.
Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon's spittle fragrance". During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.
This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food, and some people consider it an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.
From 18th to the mid 19th century, the whaling industry prospered. By some reports, nearly 5,000 whales, including sperm whales, were killed each year. Due to studies showing the whale populations were being threatened, the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Although ambergris is not harvested from whales, many countries also ban the trade of ambergris as part of the more general ban on the hunting and exploitation of whales.
- United States – the possession and trade of ambergris is prohibited by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
- Australia – Under federal law, the export and import of ambergris for commercial purposes is banned by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The various States and Territories have additional laws regarding ambergris.
In chapter 91 of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Stubb, one of the mates of the Pequod, fools the captain of a French whaler (Rose-bud) into abandoning the corpse of a sperm whale found floating in the sea. His plan is to recover the corpse himself in hopes that it contains ambergris. His hope proves well founded, and the Pequod's crew recovers a valuable quantity of the substance. Melville devotes the following chapter to a discussion of ambergris, with special attention to the irony that "fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale."
In the 2001 film Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter sends Clarice Starling a letter which he writes while intentionally wearing a hand lotion containing ambergris, correctly assuming that this would lead her to discover his location in Florence, Italy, due to lotion utilizing ambergris being legal in only a few countries.
In the 2007 film Sweeney Todd, the character Beadle Bamford declares ambergris to be the secret of the source of his exotic aroma.
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|Look up ambergris in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Natural History Magazine Article (from 1933): Floating Gold -- The Romance of Ambergris
- Ambergris - A Pathfinder and Annotated Bibliography
- On the chemistry and ethics of Ambergris
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