If you have ever heard that someone feels lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean, you have probably imagined something very visually unattractive and very deep down. Our intuition tells us that whale shit must be heavy and therefore should logically sink until it finds its final resting place at the bottom of the sea. Whale shit, however, does not sink. It actually floats.
The Sperm Whale is an animal of colossal proportions, it can measure up to about 20 meters long (70ft). We do not know that much about this gigantic mammal. We know that it can live for more than 70 years, and that it inhabits most of the world’s oceans. We also know that it feeds mostly on squid and that to find its food it has to dive to depths between 300 and 800 meters and sometimes even 2 kilometers.
There is a part of squids that the sperm whale can’t digest, the sharp, parrot-like beaks. These cause irritation to the lining of the stomach and intestines of the whale, and to protect itself, the whale produces ambergris. Every once in a while this substance is expelled by the whale. It was originally thought this was done through the mouth, but it seems that it actually comes out the other side. There is still some uncertainty about this. This secretion then floats on the oceans for years and it can ocassionally end up in beaches.
What is so interesting about ambergris is that it is incredibly valuable. Because of its peculiar qualities it has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, eaten or burnt like incense, to enhance the flavours of food and wine, for herbal and homeopathic remedies, as an aphrodisiac -rubbing it on your skin- and, of all things, in perfumes.
Even though it can have a very offensive smell when fresh, ambergris has a subtle and pleasant smell after years in the sea. The base manure odour fades as it cures and its fragrance has been described as sensual, sweet, earthy, and mossy. This haunting, musky smell makes it especially effective as a fixative in perfumes because it melds the notes, anchoring the most volatile ones, making them last, and it also brings out the best qualities of the other fragrances. It apparently retains its scent for centuries and becomes sweeter with time.
Because it is so incredibly expensive (a lump can cost up to $20.000) and so scarce, usually available only from dedicated beachcombers in the black market, ambergris is rarely used anymore. Most of the ambergris used in perfumes today is synthetic. However, perfumes like Hermes Eau de Merveilles supposedly still use real ambergris.
So the next time you stumble upon a strange-looking lump of greyish material while walking on the beach, take a closer look, and you may want to smell it too. Because you have probably found some whale shit and you are already rich.
(to read article in PDF: Eau de Whale Shit)
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