Monday, July 16, 2012

A whale carcass, ambergris and ‘how to become a millionaire overnight’.

The decomposed leftovers of a baleen whale that
washed up on Gili Lankanfushi.
Last week, after a really stormy day a decomposed carcass washed up on the beach at Gili Lankanfushi. The only part that we could make-out was it's head. That allowed us to gain some insight into what sort of an animal it was; a whale, and not just any whale, but a baleen whale, one of the whale species that filter feeds on plankton by filtering water through it's baleen, as opposed to toothed whales that hunt for bigger prey and have got well developed teeth. There it was - leftovers of a mighty ocean mammal washed up on our beach. However, the body was so decomposed that we could barely get any more information from our find, and it was not exactly a pleasant smell, so we hauled it back out into the Indian Ocean.

The anatomy of a baleen whale's head illustrated
by this picture of a minke whale.
Credit to

"Maavaharu!”, somebody said with excitement, "you threw away Maavaharu !".

Here in the Maldives, every time someone says the word ambergris ("maavaharu" in the Dhivehi), it sparks excitement in the locals. Finding ambergris is essentially like winning a lottery, as this "epic" substance is highly prized e.g. 25 USD/gram at and of course whoever finds it gets wealthy in a blink of an eye. In fact, in the past few weeks a lot of people in the Maldives have found kilograms of ambergris…

So what exactly is ambergris, and why is it so highly prized, and also why was our whale carcass NOT ambergris? Ambergris is only produced by one species of toothed whale - the sperm whale. Sperm whales eat giant squid, and the squid have sharp beaks, as well as tentacle barbels that can cause a lot of damage to the whale's intestine. So ambergris is believed to be a biliary secretion of a sperm whale and it helps sharp objects to pass through the whale's intestine. Ambergris is normally passed through the whale intestines, but if it is too large it is regurgitated (vomited) by the whale. Initially, it looks like offensive smelling gunk, but as it dries out, it changes into a luxurious waxy substance that is highly demanded by the perfume industry; apparently it smells extremely pleasant once dried out "sweet, earthy, marine and animalistic"; a smell simply craved by some people. That is why it is worth so much. Keep a look out – you could be the next millionaire!


  1. Thanks this was useful.What about the "afterbirth" that a female whale leaves behind after it delivers a baby whale, I have heard tales that its of extreme value as well.Do you know about it.
    Its a story I have heard from around Andaman and Nicobar islands(India).

  2. As far as my quick research on google reveals, there is nothing in the records on the afterbirth of whales as having any value, except being an interesting finding to the scientists.

    Perhaps the people misidentify Ambergris as whale placenta. Let me know if you find any written resources documenting this.

    Best Regards
    Marine Biologist & Environmental Officer @ Gili.