A couple of weeks ago, Aida Zurina Long I was fishing near the Malaysian Fisheries Development Authority when he saw a foreign object floating in the water. At first, he thought it was garbage. The look, here between us, was not good at all. However, to her father (who had come down to the jetty to greet her and had been a fisherman for many years) gave him a hunch.
A waxy lump like that could be whale vomit. They picked it up and tried to set it on fire. The result was a sweet smell. They have just found five kilos of ambergris, a rare and little used substance that, in the world of perfumery it can reach up to 71,000 dollars per kilo.
It happens from time to time. In 2016, a couple walking along a Moracambe Bay beach in Lancashire (UK) also a waxy lump was found with a smell “halfway between a squid and free range manure”. It was 1.57 kg, a little less, yes; but all a “fat” of Christmas.
A really valuable “junk”
To understand why a piece of ambergris can be so valuable you have to know what it is. The main component of this product is ambrein, a substance that can only biosynthesize the digestive system of sperm whales. Actually, its function has nothing to do with odors (in fact, it has no odor): it is a product that sperm whales produce to solve a problem stemming from the main component of your diet: the squids.
The digestive system of sperm whales cannot digest squid beaks (typical cephalopod jaws). Very few animals can digest these beaks and, de facto, they are almost the only remains found of dead cephalopods. The interesting thing about sperm whales is that secrete ambrein to encapsulate spikes and not tear in its passage through the body of the animal.
Once the mixture of ambrein, peaks and another substance called epicoprostanol is made, it is expelled from the animals either as fecal matter or as vomit (hence its popular name). And, subsequently, wandering through the sea that discolors it. During this process of maritime drift, the fecal matter disappears quickly and the lump picks up odor from the ocean.
What is it for?
As i said, ambreina has no smell of its own, but it has a very curious property: when exposed to a certain type of active oxygen, it is capable of fixing volatile oils by slow evaporation. That is to say, allows the scent to last longer.
Today, most perfumers use synthetic ambrein. However, the shortage of this product (after all, there are not always giant lumps of ambergris in the fecal material of sperm whales and on the other hand, there are not as many sperm whales as there were once) makes it a particularly sweet product for luxury perfumes. That is what triggers its price.
It has some other uses, it is also true. Traditionally, this product has been considered to be an ‘aphrodisiac’. Fortunately, it is not just a myth and, today, we have studies that seem to support it … in rats. The rest are currently gossip. But gossip that is worth its price in gold.
Imagen | Gabriel Barathieu