A whale carcass, ambergris and ‘how to become a millionaire overnight’

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Last week, after a really stormy day a decomposed carcass washed up on the beach at Gili Lankanfushi. The only part that we could make-out was it’s head. That allowed us to gain some insight into what sort of an animal it was; a whale, and not just any whale, but a baleen whale, one of the whale species that filter feeds on plankton by filtering water through it’s baleen, as opposed to toothed whales that hunt for bigger prey and have got well developed teeth. There it was – leftovers of a mighty ocean mammal washed up on our beach. However, the body was so decomposed that we could barely get any more information from our find, and it was not exactly a pleasant smell, so we hauled it back out into the Indian Ocean.

“Maavaharu!”, somebody said with excitement, “you threw away Maavaharu !”.

Here in the Maldives, every time someone says the word ambergris (“maavaharu” in the Dhivehi), it sparks excitement in the locals. Finding ambergris is essentially like winning a lottery, as this “epic” substance is highly prized e.g. 25 USD/gram at http://www.ambergris.co.nz and of course whoever finds it gets wealthy in a blink of an eye. In fact, in the past few weeks a lot of people in the Maldives have found kilograms of ambergris…

So what exactly is ambergris, and why is it so highly prized, and also why was our whale carcass NOT ambergris? Ambergris is only produced by one species of toothed whale – the sperm whale. Sperm whales eat giant squid, and the squid have sharp beaks, as well as tentacle barbels that can cause a lot of damage to the whale’s intestine. So ambergris is believed to be a biliary secretion of a sperm whale and it helps sharp objects to pass through the whale’s intestine. Ambergris is normally passed through the whale intestines, but if it is too large it is regurgitated (vomited) by the whale. Initially, it looks like offensive smelling gunk, but as it dries out, it changes into a luxurious waxy substance that is highly demanded by the perfume industry; apparently it smells extremely pleasant once dried out “sweet, earthy, marine and animalistic”; a smell simply craved by some people. That is why it is worth so much. Keep a look out – you could be the next millionaire!

The anatomy of a baleen whale’s head illustrated by this picture of a minke whale.
Credit to www.wanderingalbatross.org