A sperm whale shitting in the ocean. Photo by Strange Ones; all other photos by Christopher Kemp
Between 7 billion human asses and countless bird, fish, and animal butts, our planet pumps out an ungodly amount of poop every day. Few of those turds—if any—are as valuable as the mysterious and rare fudge dragons dooked out by sperm whales.
In late January, a British man named Ken Wilman found a six-pound lump of sperm whale shit (also known as ambergris) while walking his dog on the beach. Afterward, a French dealer offered him $70,000 for what was, in all seriousness, a piece of crap. Wilman's story has a precedent. In 2012, an eight-year-old boy walking with his father along a beach in England found some sperm whale poo worth $63,000. Before that, in 2006, a couple in Australia came across a 32-pound log that reportedly netted them almost $300,000.
What the fuck is going on? What makes sperm whale ass ham so damn expensive?
The reason for the price tag is that for generations, ambergris has been highly sought-after by the high-end perfume industry. Houses like Chanel and Lanvin covet this extraordinary poo for its unique bouquet and ability to bind scents to human skin.
Of course in the modern era, the use of whale byproducts for industrial purposes is widely pooh-poohed. In 1973, the United States banned the possession and trade of ambergris under the Endangered Species Act; Australia passed a similar measure in 1999. All of which has driven the ambergris market deep underground.
In order to find out more about the furtive and wildly lucrative whale-shit market, I reached out to two international dealers—one in France, the other in New Zealand. Both refused to be interviewed, with the French dealer responding, “We do not want to give any information which could reach some competitors or create new ones.”
So I did the next best thing and called the man who literally wrote the book on ambergris. Christopher Kemp is a molecular biologist who was living and working in New Zealand in 2008 when a mysterious object washed ashore near the country’s capital, Wellington. “No one knew what it was,” Kemp told me over the phone. “Some thought it was a big block of cheese. Others said it may have been a meteorite.” But after someone suggested that it might be whale shit, crowds flocked to the beach, carving out chunks of the log with garden tools and taking them home until nothing remained.
“I was so interested, confused, and compelled to try to find out what ambergris was,” Kemp said, but the more answers he found, the more questions he had. The biologist chronicled his quest and in 2012 published Floating Gold: A Natural (And Unnatural) History of Ambergris.
I recently called Kemp to get the scoop on the number one number two in the world, and to find out how you too can become a whale-shit treasure-hunter.
VICE: What’s the best way to describe ambergris?
Christopher Kemp: Ambergris is a type of whale poop. It’s not quite poop, but it has a lot in common with poop—mainly in that it comes from the same place as poop. It’s produced solely by sperm whales, and only a small percentage of them. It’s estimated that maybe one percent of the total population of sperm whales produce ambergris. Basically, sperm whales live almost exclusively on a diet of squid. Some of the large sperm whales are ingesting up to a ton of squid a day. A squid is almost completely digestible. The only thing that can’t be digested by a whale is an inner quill, called the “pen,” and the beak, which really resembles a parrot beak—very hard and durable. Now, a normal whale will digest a squid and regurgitate all the non-digestible bits into the ocean and swim on. But there’s a very small percentage that produce ambergris. Some of those beaks make it through the whale stomach, into the small intestine, where they irritate the delicate lining. In these instances, the whale’s intestine produces this fatty, cholesterol-rich secretion to bind up the beaks to prevent them from chaffing the intestinal lining. That is what will eventually become ambergris.
That’s basically the production cycle. It’s passed the same way feces would be, and then it floats around in the ocean. When it comes out, it’s black, sticky, and very fecal- and unpleasant-smelling and not really worth a great deal of money. But it starts this journey where it’s broken down by seawater, and it undergoes a molecular degradation to become something that’s really valuable. It matures and transforms over time to become a white, waxy lump that is then worth $1,000 a pound or $5,000 a pound, depending on its quality [though some reports suggest pieces can be worth much more].
Has anyone ever seen a sperm whale excrete ambergris?
No. In many respects, sperm whales are still a total mystery. Because they spend so much time a mile beneath the surface, we don’t know about lots of aspects of their lives. We don’t know how they mate, where they travel, how they get there, or when they go there. We don’t know how they communicate with one another. We don’t know how they manage to capture that many squid, and whether there’s a particular hunting technique they use. And we definitely don’t know if they pass ambergris naturally, or if it always kills them. We definitely know that it kills them sometimes, because there have been instances of whales washing ashore and a necropsy finding that the cause of death was a total obtrusion in the gut by this big boulder of immature ambergris.
How long has ambergris been in demand?
It’s clear that from written records it’s been used for at least 1,000 years, but probably well before that. There are records from the eighth and ninth centuries of it being traded by Arab traders. We know from history that it’s been used almost for every purpose. As recently as the 1700s and the early 1800s, it was used as a medicine. It was used as a tonic, a treatment for pregnant women, or as a cure for impotence and headaches. It was burned as incense across the Middle East; it was used as an herbal remedy in China. And in many cases, it was used just as a display of wealth: monarchs in Europe used to celebrate the birth of a child by presenting each other with pieces of ambergris.
Can you describe what makes ambergris so appealing?
When it first comes out of a whale, I don’t think it is that appealing. It has a sheep-dung smell to it. But as it undergoes that transformative aging process—that curing—the more aggressive fecal tones of the profile tend to diminish and more complex odors begin to come to the forefront. The older a piece of ambergris, the more different molecular compounds you get. So if you have a really aged piece of ambergris, it’s a whole bouquet of different molecular compounds you’re smelling. You start to get some pleasant aspects to it. [It smells] like old wood, or ozone—like the air that you get after a lightning storm; it smells grassy; it smells marine-y. Every piece of ambergris smells quite different because it’s been on a different journey.
There’s one piece that I remember smelling—it fit very comfortably in the palm of my hand; it was sort of the size of a small apple. It smelled almost completely like an embodiment of the sea. It was like distilling the ocean into a solid thing. You got the smell of the air around the ocean; you got the smell of the brine in the sea. It was really, really peculiar—it was an unusual experience for me. If I’d been wealthier, I would’ve purchased it.
How widely is ambergris used in the perfume industry today?
It was used previously much more than it is today. Whether or not the big perfumers like Chanel, and other big, France-based companies, still use it is sort of a mystery. They will tell you that they don’t use it. But in my book I managed to contact a French trader who buys ambergris all around the world. He won’t get on a plane for less than 45 to 50 pounds. He claimed, on the record, that he then sells to middlemen who work for Chanel. So it’s very mysterious. The perfume industry itself is a very clandestine world because they’re trying to protect their formulas. And then there’s this stigma of (A) using natural products, (B) using products from whales, and (C) using products that are poop—so you just tend to meet this stone wall. Ambergris is still sold for enormous amounts of money, so someone must be using it.
Are there professional ambergris hunters, or is it something you simply have to chance upon?
There are people in New Zealand—they’re fringe people who live on the edge of society. Because ambergris is so unpredictable, I don’t know if you could ever really say that you know you’re going to make enough money to support your family and pay your mortgage with it. But there are definitely people for whom ambergris is an important revenue stream. There are quite a few of those people, but they’re very surly. Typically, if you’re going to find a piece, it’s going to be a small piece, though there are definitely instances of people finding 200-pound boulders worth half a million or a million dollars.
If someone wanted to go out ambergris-hunting, where should they look?
If someone wanted to look for ambergris, they would start by identifying beaches that tend to accumulate a lot of other flotsam because, after all, ambergris is just very valuable flotsam. The best times for finding ambergris are after periods of sustained onshore winds and high seas, or after storm systems have passed over. You should look after high tide and walk along the high-tide line where the lighter objects have ended up. Ambergris is slightly less dense than seawater, so it floats, but mostly submerged, a little like an iceberg.
Is there any country in particular where a lot of the stuff is cropping up?
New Zealand is a hotspot. And then anywhere in what Melville called the watery part of the world: the Maldives, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Philippines, etc.
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