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For other uses, see Ambergris (disambiguation).

Ambergris (/ˈæmbərɡrs/ or /ˈæmbərɡrɪs/, Latin: Ambra grisea, Ambre gris, ambergrease or grey amber) is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.[1] The word amber is derived from the Arabic word 'anbar'(عنبر).[2]

Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, faecal odour. However, as it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency.[3] Although ambergris was formerly highly valued by perfumers as a fixative (allowing the scent to last much longer), It has now largely been replaced by synthetic ambroxan.


Ambergris occurs as a bile duct 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 theorised 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.[4][5]

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.[6] It takes years for ambergris to form. Christopher Kemp, the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, says that 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.[7] 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.[citation needed]

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. Fossilised ambergris from 1.75 million years ago has also been found.[8]

A 1.1 kg (2.4 lb) piece of ambergris found on a beach at Anglesey, Wales, was sold for £11,000 at an auction in Macclesfield, England, on 25 September 2015 to a French buyer.[9]

A 13kg ambergris was found by two Omanis from the guts of a dead sperm whale that washed up on the Fooshi shores of Sadah province in southern Oman, in November 2015.

Physical properties[edit]

Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, usually weighing from 15 g (~½ oz) to 50 kg (110 pounds), sometimes more. When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in colour (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 colour, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odour 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 volatilised into a white vapour. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils.

Chemical properties[edit]

Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a terpene known as 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 produces ambroxan and ambrinol, the main odor components of ambergris.


Ambroxan is now produced synthetically and used extensively in the perfume industry.[10]


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.[11] It is collected from remains found at sea and on beaches, although its precursor originates from the sperm whale, which is a vulnerable species.[12]

Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes.[13] The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon's spittle fragrance".[14] 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 a cause of plague.

This substance has also been used historically as a flavoring for food and is considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures.[4] During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.[14]


From the 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 that 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.

Urine, faeces and ambergris (that has been naturally excreted by a sperm whale) are waste products not considered parts or derivatives of a CITES species and are therefore not covered by the provisions of the Convention.[15]



  • France
  • Switzerland

In culture[edit]

A serving of eggs and ambergris was reportedly King Charles II of England's favorite dish.[18]

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.[19] 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."[20]

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.

Ambergris plays a prominent role in the plot of the 2003 Futurama episode "Three Hundred Big Boys."[21] The episode guest-stars Roseanne Barr, who appears as a hologram of herself, reading the dictionary definition of "ambergris."[22]

The 1969 book The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron, later made into Disney's 1974 film The Island at the Top of the World depicts a dirigible trip to the 'Whale Graveyard' where they find so much ambergris that it becomes a point of contention.

In the 1956 episode "Whale Gold" of the British television series The Buccaneers, a crew of eighteenth-century pirates led by Captain Dan Tempest (actor Robert Shaw) find large pieces of ambergris at sea and on a beach, discoveries that lead to quarrels and death due to "whale gold fever."

The plot of The Avengers 1963 episode Killer Whale revolves around an ambergris smuggling operation.

In the 2014 episode "Ambergris" of the television program Bob's Burgers, a lump of ambergris found on the beach plays an important role, as Louise, Tina, and Gene attempt to sell the ambergris illegally for $30,000.

In "The Sixth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor" in "The Arabian Nights" by Sir Richard Burton, Sinbad finds vast quantities of Ambergris after being shipwrecked on an unknown island after setting sail from Bassorāh.

In "A Romance of Perfume Lands or the Search for Capt. Jacob Cole", F. S. Clifford, October 1881, the last chapter concerns one of the novel's characters discovering an area off of remote island which contains large amounts of ambergris. He hopes to use this knowledge to help make his fortune in the manufacture of perfumes.


  1. ^ "Ambergris". Britannica. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Cupboard love 2: A dictionary of cullinary curiosities. Mark Morton.
  3. ^ Burr, Chandler (2003). The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-50797-7. 
  4. ^ a b "The Origin of Ambergris". 
  5. ^ Video on YouTube
  6. ^ William F. Perrin, Bernd Wursig, J. G.M. Thewissen (2009). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. p. 28. ISBN 0080919936. 
  7. ^ Kemp, Christopher (2012). Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. University of Chicago Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-226-43036-2. 
  8. ^ Baldanza, Angela; Bizzarri, Roberto; Famiani, Federico; Monaco, Paolo; Pellegrino, Roberto; Sassi, Paola (30 July 2013). "Enigmatic, biogenically induced structures in Pleistocene marine deposits: A first record of fossil ambergris". Geology 41 (10): 1075. Bibcode:2013Geo....41.1075B. doi:10.1130/G34731.1. 
  9. ^ Ambergris found on Anglesey beach sells for £11,000 BBC 25 September 2015
  10. ^ "Ambrox/Ambroxan: a Modern Fascination on an Elegant Material". Perfume Shrine. 5 November 2010. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  11. ^ Spitznagel, Eric (January 12, 2012). "Ambergris, Treasure of the Deep". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  12. ^ "Physeter macrocephalus". International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  13. ^ Brady, George Stuart; Clauser, Henry R.; Vaccari, John A. (2002). "Ambergris". Materials Handbook: An Encyclopedia for Managers, Technical Professionals, Purchasing and Production Managers, Technicians, and Supervisors. McGraw-Hill. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-07-136076-0. 
  14. ^ a b Graber, Cynthia (April 26, 2007). "Strange but True: Whale Waste Is Extremely Valuable". Scientific American. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  15. ^ CITES CoP16 Com. II Rec. 2 (Rev. 1), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Sixteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Bangkok (Thailand), 3–14 March 2013 Summary record of the second session of Committee II
  16. ^ "Whale and Dolphin permits - Ambergris". 1979-06-28. Retrieved 2014-03-13. 
  17. ^ "Ambergris, Treasure of the Deep". Businessweek. 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2014-03-13. 
  18. ^ Lord Macaulay (1848). "IV". The History of England from the Accession of James II 1. Harper. p. 222. 
  19. ^ Moby-Dick, Chapter 91 at Wikisource.
  20. ^ Moby-Dick, Chapter 92 at Wikisource.
  21. ^ "Three Hundred Big Boys - The Infosphere, the Futurama Wiki". Retrieved 2014-03-13. 
  22. ^ "Futurama: Season 5, Episode 11 : Three Hundred Big Boys (15 June 2003)". Retrieved 2014-03-13. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ambergris". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Borschberg, Peter (April 2004). Pinto, Carla Alferes, ed. "O comércio de âmbar asiático no início da época moderna (séculos XV–XVIII)" [The Asiatic Ambergris trade in the early modern period (15th to 18th century)]. Oriente (in Portuguese) (Lisbon: Fundação Oriente) 8: 3–25. (accessed 21 August 2015)
  • Kemp, Christopher (2012-05-15). Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-43036-2. 
  • Kovatcheva, Assia; Golbraikh, Alexander; Oloff, Scott; Xiao, Yun-De; Zheng, Weifan; Wolschann, Peter; Buchbauer, Gerhard; Tropsha, Alexander (2004). "Combinatorial QSAR of Ambergris Fragrance Compounds". Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling 44 (2): 582–95. doi:10.1021/ci034203t. 
  • Dudley, Paul (1724). "An Essay upon the Natural History of Whales, with a Particular Account of the Ambergris Found in the Sperma Ceti Whale. In a Letter to the Publisher, from the Honourable Paul Dudley, Esq; F. R. S". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 33 (381–391): 256–69. Bibcode:1724RSPT...33..256D. doi:10.1098/rstl.1724.0053. JSTOR 103782. 
  • Ohloff, Günther; Vial, Christian; Wolf, Hans Richard; Job, Kurt; Jégou, Elise; Polonsky, Judith; Lederer, Edgar (1980). "Stereochemistry-Odor Relationships in Enantiomeric Ambergris Fragrances". Helvetica Chimica Acta 63 (7): 1932–46. doi:10.1002/hlca.19800630721. 
  • Dannenfeldt, Karl H. (1982). "Ambergris: The Search for Its Origin". Isis 73 (268): 382–97. doi:10.1086/353040. JSTOR 231442. PMID 6757176. 

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