Sperm Whale-waste or Jackpot?

Adult Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) together with a juvenile Sperm Whale. Ambergris is built in the intertestines of some Sperm Whales. Source: Gabriel Barathieu. 2012.


Did you ever hear about “Ambergris”? 😀

This picture underneath looks like a weird rock for you? Well…strictly speaking, this mysterious, waxy substance has relatively little to do with common rocks. It is “Ambergris” or grey Amber (Ambra grisea), with other words the vomit of Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus). It is built in the intertestines of Sperm Whales and can be found floating in the ocean or is washed up to the shorelines. The exact cause of the formation of this substance has not yet been fully investigated.


Prepared piece of Grey Amber, ready for auction (left) and beak of a squid enclosed inside of Grey Amber (right). Source: Left: Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers. 2019. Right: Ambergris NZ Ltd. 2017.


Squid and Octopus are on the menu for Sperm Whales. As they have very sharp beaks, the Whales can not digest them. The Amber could function as a shield or a way to protect from the beaks of squids. The substance binds the beaks and helps getting rid of these problematic remains of their meals (see picture above, right).

When the Amber is still fresh, it has a marine, fecal, not so nice odor. Nevertheless, with age it develops a scent, which is said to be sweet and earthy and is highly valued in perfume industries. As the supply is very irregular and it is rarely found, high-quality ambergris can be sold for up to $20.000/ per kilogram (Golds price: $44.000/ per kilogram). So always keep your eyes open while taking a walk at the beach… maybe you  will find a piece of the precious substance in front of the coast of São Miguel and get some extra money for your vacation on the Azores 😉


Beak of a Seven-arm Octopus (Haliphron atlanticus) we found in front of the Coast of Vila Franca do Campo on our Whale Watching tour


Maybe the digesting problem of the beaks has something to do with our recent discoveries of headless Seven-arm Octopusses (Haliphron atlanticus). If you want to have some more information on the topic, you can read about it in one of our previous blog posts here 😀


Ambergris washed up on a Beach in Bahamas. Source: Ambergris Bahamas. 2017.



The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 2013. Ambergris. https://www.britannica.com/science/ambergris, Retrieved 23 Sep 2019

Burr, C. 2003. The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. New York: Random House.

Keartes, S. 2015. Lump of Sperm Whale vomit set to auction for $10,000. https://www.earthtouchnews.com/oceans/whales-and-dolphins/lump-of-sperm-whale-vomit-set-to-auction-for-10000/, Retrieved 23 Sep 2019

Ambergris NZ Ltd. 2017. About Ambergris. https://www.ambergris.co.nz/about-ambergris, Retrieved 23 Sep 2019

Catarina Eirich

About Catarina Eirich

Catarina is Master of Engineering Ecology at TUM, with focus on Aquatic Biology. She has a strong passion for the ocean and marine ecosystem. Joined the TERRA AZUL team as Volunteer Marine Wildlife Guide in 2019, enjoying out at sea with wildlife, accompanying and informing visitors, and collecting field imagery and data for local Cetaceans and Sea Turtles Research & Conservation projects.

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