Floating Gold: Why ambergris is called ‘treasure of the sea’

China, Japan, Africa, the Americas and tropical islands such as the Bahamas use ambergris for medicines, potions and spice.

Remember the whale on the cover of the famous 19th-century novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? That was a sperm whale. Melville’s book talks in detail about the anatomy of various species of whales. The literary tryst with nature makes the reader take a deep dive into the lore and science of whales and whaling.

A unique mythical creature—historically feared and revered in cultures around the world—the sperm whale has the largest head and brain on the planet, and can dive deeper than almost any other marine mammal. Sperm whales live in a stable and complex matrilineal society similar to that of elephants. The teeth on the bottom jaw can grasp large squid or fish unlike other large whales, which filter smaller, denser prey through baleen. Sperm whales are usually found in deep oceanic waters and can be observed closer to the shore around islands. The marine environment is dependent on whales as these creatures play an important role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere and fighting against climate change. The size and impression of the creature, however, have made them vulnerable to illegal trade activities.

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The sperm whale is a protected species and it is considered illegal to hunt it, but smugglers have always targeted the fish for its valuable ambergris, a rare substance, in the form of a waxy oil, that lines a whale’s stomach and which is thrown out of the body. It is also called ‘floating gold’ or ‘treasure of the sea’ because of its worth. Most times, ambergris has been misinterpreted as whale vomit, which, as suggested by experts, is not expelled through their mouths, but excreted from the back. An upset stomach can create ambergris, which has been highly valued for thousands of years as an ingredient in perfume and pharmaceuticals. The substance originates in the intestines of male sperm whales after feasting on squid whose hard, pointy beaks scrape the whales’ guts. Scientists also believe that whales sometimes protect their intestines and body parts by secreting a fatty substance to surround the beaks.

Once puked, it solidifies and floats on the surface of the sea. The substance is black and soft with an odour. The smell is terrible and has been compared to dried cow dung. But once exposed to sun, air and seawater, it hardens and fades to a light grey or yellow, developing a subtle and pleasant fragrance in the process. The longer it floats, the better the scent. The coveted ingredient’s smooth, musky, earthy fragrance is used by the high-end perfume industry to make perfumes. Sometimes it is even used to make medicines. The glue-like substance in it makes the aroma in perfumes last long. Because of its high value, it has been seized many times and found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, ranging from 15 gm up to 420 kg.

China, Japan, Africa, the Americas and tropical islands such as the Bahamas use ambergris for medicines, potions and spice. News reports reveal that early this year, ambergris was seized from Thailand worth 1,90,000 British pounds. In June, Mumbai Police seized nearly 9 kg of ambergris—1 kg is estimated to be worth Rs 1 crore in the international market.

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The collection, possession and sale of all wildlife material is prohibited under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in India. Internationally, there is a freeze on commercial whaling and a ban on international trade of whale products, but three countries—Iceland, Japan and Norway—continue commercial whale hunts. Over 1,000 whales are killed every year for commercial purposes. Over three lakh whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to other threats, including shipping and habitat loss, says WWF, the world’s leading conservation organisation.

The US and other International Whaling Commission member countries have tried for years to persuade Iceland, Japan and Norway to end whaling as it undermines the effectiveness of the commission’s ban on commercial whaling. There is also a threat of climate change and loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic that has affected the habitats of whales. Underwater plants and animals that whales feed on have moved because of climate change. These changes make whales migrate to places where food is available.

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