Ambergris: sperm whale intestinal goodies

Photo credit: Bryant Austin

Photo credit: Bryant Austin

Ambergris sounds like a word for a fancy French wine or dessert, but it’s actually the name for a blob of stuff that forms in the sperm whale’s large intestine or rectum. According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammal’s article authored by Dale Rice, ambergris is actually an Old French word meaning “gray amber.”

Apparently, it’s not fully understood how ambergris is formed, but here’s one idea, “Clarke (2006) hypothesized that the formation of ambergris begins when a mass of indigestible material–mainly squid beaks, which the whale normally vomits–manages to pass through the duodenum.” The duodenum is the first section of the small intestine, so if the squid beaks get past the small intestine, the remaining sections have to deal with it and the strategy seems to be forming ambergris. These blobs can be big or small and in the photos look like strange rocks, one actually looked like a rotten slice of beef.

It’s not common to find ambergris in a sperm whale. Rice explains that during whaling in one location out of 1,933 sperm whales landed only 19 had ambergris in their intestines.

Now the craziest part of the article is this sentence: “Through the years many people have brought me malodorous globs that they picked up on the seashore in hopes that it was ambergris; none of it ever was.” People actually spend time searching for and picking up gross blobs in the hope of finding ambergris. That’s insane!

And then they actually take it to Dale Rice in his office and make him inspect it, this is true dedication to finding ambergris. Personally, I will stick to looking for cool rocks. And for your information, Rice says that ambergris is almost never found on the beach, it’s found in whales. Just something to remember the next time you feel compelled to look for ambergris on the beach.

But at least people don’t use it for insense or laxatives any more, living in the 21st Century is a good thing.


  1. J Napoli says

    Wow, squid beaks! So, the question is: if ambergris appears on the beach and nobody sees it, did it make a sound? Another offbeat, intriguing article!

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