Formation of Ambergris

Ambergris is formed from a secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of the sperm whale, and can be found floating on the sea or washed up on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of dead sperm whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been discovered within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale's gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that it may have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.

Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter. It is speculated that an ambergris mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit. Ambergris takes years to form and are only produced by the sperm whales, and only by an estimated one percent of them. Ambergris is rare; once expelled by a whale, it often floats for years before making landfall.

Ambergris is primarily found in the Atlantic Ocean and on the coasts of South Africa, Brazil, Madagascar, the East Indies, The Maldives, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Molucca Islands. Most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahamas in the Caribbean, particularly New Providence. Fossilised ambergris from 1.75 million years ago has also been found.

Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a terpene known as ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool.

Breakdown of the relatively scentless ambrein through oxidation produces ambroxan and ambrinol, the main odor components of ambergris.

Properties and characteristics

Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, ranging from 15 grams up to 420 kilograms. Ambergris floats and is sometimes found on beaches and shorelines.

  • When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in colour (sometimes streaked with black), soft, with a strong fecal smell.
  • Following months to years of photodegradation and oxidation in the ocean, this precursor gradually hardens, developing a dark grey or black colour, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odour that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic.
  • ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926.