Ambergris (Whale Poop)

I never thought the day would come when Id tell the world to search the beaches for whale poop on the southern Oregon Coast as an enticement to stay in one of our Port Orford vacation rentals. Especially since there are so many other fantastic reasons to come to our little coastal town. But it's a big accomplishment to find this rare "material".

What is Ambergris?

Ambergris forms in the digestive tract of the sperm whale and is occasionally expelled. What exactly is it?  Well, it seems to be a collection of squid beaks that the sperm whale is unable to actually digest, as well as the goo secreted in the sperm whale intestines to protect them from the sharp squid beaks.

After floating around the ocean for a decade or so, it will find its way to the beach where a lucky beachcomber may stumble upon it. Actually, hopefully stumble near it, not on it. We recommend you try your hand at searching for this floating beach gold on the Southern Oregon Coast.

Is Ambergris worth any money?

Why would you be lucky to find this smelly substance? Actually, it doesn't really smell all that bad, and ambergris can be worth a small fortune. It is highly sought after by perfumers as a fixative and has been used in expensive perfumes for centuries and is one of the most sought-after substances in the world. Ambergris is in very short supply and in high demand. No other whale species in the world other than the sperm whale produces ambergris.

Many uses for Ambergris

It has been used as a cure for pestilence and according to the 10th century Muslim trader Ibn Hawqal, ambergris is an aphrodisiac. In the book "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville claimed that ambergris is "an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale," and was "largely used in perfumery, in pastilles, precious candles, hair powders, and pomatum."

According to SFGate News, "it has appeared in overpriced delicacies, such as the $4,700 mince pie created last month for charity by British food designer Andrew Stellitano, and even more overpriced perfumes. In 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette, which featured ambergris as a main ingredient, was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle.

How much is ambergris worth?

It depends on how fresh it is. Like a fine wine, ambergris gets better with age.  Approximately worth $20 per gram.  Lucky beachcombers have received up to $400,000 for this interesting find. A recent find on the Oregon Coast was weighed in at over 29 pounds.  I have sent messages to this lucky treasure hunter to find out more details. Hopefully I will have more detailed information for you soon.

What does it look like?

Ambergris looks like lumpy large potatoes, smooth and brown outside and yellow to pale grey inside. It can be the size of a marble to several hundred pounds. One way to determine ambergris is by smell.  After floating in the ocean for decades, it can take on the odor, described as smelling like tobacco, Brazil nuts or even the wood in an old church.

Here are a couple of tests that you can perform at home to find out if you may have found ambergris:
  • Needle test: heat a needle over a flame for approximately 15 seconds. Insert the needle about 1/8 into the substance.  Look for melting around the needle and a black bubbling liquid.  There should be a stringy, tar type residue on your finger when you touch it. Reheat the needle and look for white smoke. Then, was your hands.
  • Methyl-alcohol test: place a small sample of ambergris in hot methyl alcohol and look for melting.  Ambergris will then crystallize when the alcohol cools.
Regardless of its elegant uses and fascinating history, when you pick it up, remember: Its still whale poop. If you want to try your hand at looking for this fascinating beach gold, we recommend staying at a vacation home with an ocean view on the Southern Oregon Coast here at Port Orford.

Additional Resources
Ambergris Update. Natural Aromatic Materials - by Tony Burfield