If you’re a blubber-loving whale-o-phile, the idea of eating whale parts likely sounds horrific. But there is one ocean-friendly way to get your whale fix: Ambergris. This gray, waxy substance forms in the guts of sperm whales, perhaps as a protective coating around squid beaks. The ambergris eventually passes through the whale's intestines and out into the sea. It may sound gross, but to some folks, this poo is gastronomic gold.
Ambergris might be best known as a high-end perfume ingredient. Its odor has been variously described as earthy, musky, sweet and marine. An 1895 article in The New York Times called it “an odor almost indescribable, the blending of new-mown hay, the damp woodsy fragrance of a fern-copse, and the faintest possible perfume of the violet.” Before modern chemistry, ambergris was also prized as a fixative — it could heighten the scents of other perfume ingredients, and make the whole package last longer when applied to skin.
If this scent sounds heavenly, the price tag should bring you back down to earth. Online retailers sell ambergris for around $30 a gram — about the same price as 18 karat gold. Those lucky enough to find it can walk away with small fortunes. In 2012, beachcombers found a 40 kilogram lump of the stuff that reportedly netted them $400,000.
A daring delicacy
Historically, ambergris was also a popular flavoring in haute cuisine. In the days before vanilla — vanilla itself coming from a once-rare tropical orchid — ambergris imparted its ineffable odor to pastries, candy, mousse and even wine.
In 2012, the food historian Ivan Day discovered the earliest known recipe for ice cream. Dating from the mid-1660s, the recipe calls for flavoring the “iced cream” with mace, orange flower water or, you guessed it, ambergris.
A handful of adventurous cooks have put this recipe to the test. Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber, hosts of the podcast Gastropod, described the initial flavor as “vanilla on drugs.” But as the ice cream began to melt, the warmer temperatures released scents that made it clear which end of the whale the ambergris came from.
The food blogger Sarah Lohman had a similar experience. “The flavor itself began floral, and finished armpit,” she wrote on her blog Four Pounds Flour. “It wasn’t truly repulsive, but after a while, it did make my stomach start to turn.”
The fecal aromas these gastronomes encountered may betray a subpar piece of ambergris. Ambergris starts off smelling, well, like whale poop. Only after months, years or even decades spent bobbing around the sea does the stinky nugget ripen into something you'd want to put into your mouth. Perhaps Twilley, Graber and Lohman's samples weren’t old enough. Or perhaps our ancestors were just far more tolerant of off-odors than we are.
Save the whales
Why is ambergris so rare? According to the writer Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold, only one in 1,000 sperm whales actually produce ambergris. The odiforous lump must then wash up on a beach where a person can find it — and that person must be someone who knows how to identity ambergris.
Adding to this, sperm whales were probably never that common. One estimate puts their global pre-whaling numbers at just 1,100,000. By the 1990s, whaling had knocked their numbers down to 360,000. Since their maximum growth rate is just 1 percent per year, their numbers likely aren’t much higher now.
And, though sperm whales are no longer hunted commercially, they still face plenty of threats. Since they’re long-lived and high up on the food chain, their bodies accumulate industrial toxins linked to reproductive, neurological and developmental disorders. They can die after eating plastic trash. And they can also get tangled in fishing gear and drown or starve to death.
For the Mediterranean sperm whale — a genetically distinct subpopulation with only a few hundred individuals left — entanglement in nets set for swordfish and tuna is the biggest threat to their existence.
Don’t try this at home
If you want to sample this smelly gray gold, check out your country’s laws first. Ambergris can occupy a nebulous legal space. Sperm whales are an internationally protected species, but CITES — the treaty that regulates the trade in rare creatures — exempts waste products.
In the United States, however, the Endangered Species Act makes it crystal-clear that possessing or trading ambergris is illegal. But because collecting ambergris doesn’t harm the animal, there are few if any cases of anyone getting prosecuted for selling magic whale poo.
So, how can you get your hands on some ambergris? Well, you can either get rich, get lucky — or get active in protecting sperm whales. After all, the more whales in the sea, the more ambergris for your ice cream.