Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The dirty, lucrative business of the sperm whale excretion known as ambergris

Ambergris, a waxy excretion formed in the intestines of sperm whales (thanks to their inability to digest squid beaks), is one of the most sought-after substances in the world.


Like truffle sourcing, the ambergris trade is shrouded in secrecy. Chris Kemp, a neuroscientist from Grand Rapids, Mich., spent years investigating the ambergris business, which he documents in his book, Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, to be published by the University of Chicago Press this May. “If you believe what you read in the media,” he says, “you’d think ambergris is something that people just find by accident.” The truth, he claims, is far more clandestine. “There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris. They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore.” And when whale-poop gold is on the line, he says, “it can get violent.”
Read on.