The Ambergris Edition

On whales, Yemen, and a discovery

Taking a breather for the Thanksgiving break. We will have a few hits from the archive and a guest post from our friends at Flow State. Enjoy, get some rest, and a hearty hello from Tbilisi! -Colin (CJN)

Colin here. In a story tailor-made for our tabloid and clickbait times, 35 fishermen in Yemen discovered a floating sperm whale carcass in the Gulf of Aden. Inside the mammal, they found $1.5 million dollars worth of a valuable substance called ambergris. The fisherman discovered the decomposing carcass, powered through the foul smell, and took it ashore. When they cut into its stomach, they found a large amount of the sticky, waxy substance that a whale produces in its intestines. After the discovery, the money was divided among the fishermen, as well as shared throughout their community, which had been ravaged by sanctions and civil war. 

According to the NY Post (which had to have picked up this story)

The spoils of their valuable find lifted the crew out of poverty, with several crew members purchasing new homes, cars and boats. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world due to years of conflict, and many families survive through the fishing industry.“It was an unimaginable price,” one of the men told the BBC of their yield. “We are all poor. We never expected this thing would give us such a huge amount.”

Why is this interesting? 

Ambergris, also known as “the treasure of the sea,” is often discovered by accident, like in Thailand earlier this year when it was found washed ashore. The substance has many uses, most notably for fragrances. It has a terribly foul smell at first but after drying out it develops a sweet and long-lasting fragrance, which makes it a sought-after ingredient in the perfume industry. According to GQ:

While its nature is not fully understood – the dull grey or blackish waxy lumps largely consist of undigested squid beaks (the sperm whale's main prey is giant squid) and it is thought that it might help the mammal pass sharp objects through its intestine. It may float in the ocean for as long as 30 years before being washed-up. As it floats, a white coating forms on the outside as it oxidises in the salt water. In general, lighter-coloured pieces have a lighter, sweeter fragrance and have been at sea for a longer time.

Ambergris is used as a fixative to help scents last longer, and its perfume can be best described as marine, animal and sweet.

The substance is now illegal in the US, as it comes from endangered animals, but is an important component of the perfume-making nearly everywhere else in the world. It’s also  used in traditional medicine to treat everything from “general weakness, epilepsy, typhoid, fever, hysteria and other nervous disorders or afflictions.” (CJN

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Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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