What is ambergris?
NOTE: Under Australian law ambergris is considered to be a whale product
Ambergris is a solid, waxy material produced in the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and also in the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps). It is however, only found in about 1-5% of these whales, so is not a common substance.
Clarke (2006) explained the process of ambergris formation in sperm whales. It is suggested that it is formed in the intestine of the whale to cover the indigestible objects from the animals on which it feeds (mostly the beaks of squid). A common misconception is that ambergris is released as faeces, however whale faecal matter is fluid and whales could have difficulty processing large pieces of solid matter. Large pieces of ambergris seem to build up in the whale intestine over its life and is usually released when the whale dies. Initially it floats on the ocean's surface and is black and sticky. Exposure to sun, air and salt water oxidizes it, and eventually it becomes grey and waxy, often still embedded with small squid beaks. and losing its unpleasant odour.
Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, ranging from 15 grams up to 420 kilograms. Ambergris floats and is sometimes found on beaches and shorelines. During the days of whaling ambergris was one of the many products to be taken from sperm whales. Ambergris has been known to come from sperm whales since 1724 (Boylsten in Berzin 1972).
What is ambergris used for?
Ambergris has been used for many years in the perfume and medical industries to fix the odours of scents. 'In the 20th century, synthetic chemicals replaced it [ambergris] so it no longer has much value.' (Rice in Perrin et. al 2002). But according to Clarke (2006) it is still valuable in perfumery as a fixative.
Test for ambergris
'The simplest way to confirm its identity is to heat a wire or needle in a flame and thrust it into the sample to a depth of about a centimetre; if the substance is really ambergris it will instantly melt into an opaque fluid the colour of dark chocolate. When the needle is withdrawn the ambergris will leave a tacky residue on it.' (Perrin et.al, 2002, p21).
Ambergris and Australian law
Because ambergris is a whale product, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) regulates it's possession and movement in the Commonwealth Marine Area (three nautical miles from the coast out to 200 nautical miles).
Part 13A of the EPBC Act also regulates the export and import of all whale products including ambergris. These provisions are consistent with Australia's obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Under Part 13A of the EPBC Act, non-live sperm whale specimens may only be moved internationally in the following circumstances:
i. if the specimen was taken from the animal before that species was included in a CITES Appendix (28 June 1979 in the case of the sperm whale);
ii. for scientific research purposes;
iii. for educational purposes; and
iv. for exhibition purposes.
Specimens moved under the above circumstances must generally be accompanied by CITES documentation.
Each State and Territory Government has laws which regulate the possession of whale products.
What do I do if I find some ambergris?
If you find ambergris, you should report the find to your state or territory environment department (listed below). Information on when and where you find the ambergris may assist us to better understand the life cycle and distribution of the sperm whale.
Check with your State or Territory Government before you collect or attempt to trade in ambergris.
Commercial export permits for ambergris will not be granted and there are substantial penalties for attempting to export ambergris without the proper CITES documentation.
Within Australia, ambergris is most valuable to museums and universities.
Department of Environment and Resource Management
General Enquiries Line: 1300 130 372
New South Wales
Department of Environment and Climate Change
Switchboard: (02) 9995 5000
Department of Sustainability and Environment
Service Counter: 136 186
Department of Primary Industry and Water
General Enquiries: 1300 368 550
Department for Environment and Heritage
General Enquiries: (08) 8204 1910
Department of Parks and Wildlife
General Enquiries: (08) 9219 9000
Natural Resources Environment and the Arts
General Enquiries: (08) 8999 5511
Clarke R., 2006. The origin of Ambergris. The Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals 5: 7-21.
Perrin W.F., Wursig B., Thewissen J.G.M., 2002. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Academic Press, California, p 20.
Berzin A.A., 1972. The Sperm Whale, Izdatel'stvo 'Pishcevaya Promyshlennost,' Moscow.