Connections: Atlas Obscura Edition

Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.

If you've never seen the BBC show Connections with James Burke, you are missing out. Aired in 1979 the show attempted to connect various elements of history of science into a narrative web. I adore the show and in an homage I am going to try and do a few small Atlas version of connections, taking two disparate places, and finding an unexpected connection that links them together. Here goes!


1. Colossal Squid on display at the New Zealand Te Papa Museum

The San Aspiring, a New Zealand fishing boat, caught the colossal squid in February 2007. "The crew were fishing with longlines - single lines with many baited hooks - for a large species of fish, the Antarctic toothfish. But on one line they caught more than they bargained for! There was a toothfish on the line, but eating the fish was a colossal squid - nearly 500 kg of it." The Colossal squid, featuring one of the largest beaks in nature, is now on display at the Te Papa Museum in New Zealand.

2. Cuban Perfume Museum

In Old Havana stands the perfume museum, a collection of bottles, ingredients, and historical artifacts all related to perfume. The museum has a collection of French perfumes, including Chanel No. 5, as well as great Cuban perfumers Gravi, Sebatés and Crusellas. Most of the Cuban perfumes on display predate 1960, with the exception of one large collection. Suchel Fragrencia is the state perfume and soap maker, and the official state perfume produced in the country. The museum has their complete collection.


The Connection: Whale excrement

Squid, be they giant or colossal, make up between 50 and 70% percent of a sperm whale's diet. Unfortunately for the whale those sharp, pointy squid beaks can irritate their stomaches. It seems that some whales develop a rather curious response. Their intestines coat the beaks in a fatty goo and expel the resulting substance. (Recent consensus is that it generally goes out the back, unless too large and then it is vomited up.)

Known as Ambergris and used in Chanel No. 5 and other famous perfumes the whale excrement was, and still is, one of the most valued ingredients in scent making. Though it stinks terribly when first expelled "over time, the odour becomes softer and more perfumistic." Ambergris costs upwards of 4000 dollars a pound and is still used today in high end perfumes.

So it is that the smell of the Chanel No. 5 found at the Cuban Perfume Museum is, in part at least, the smell of "the inglorious bowels of a sick whale" caused by the beaks of colossal squid, like the one on display at the New Zealand Te Papa Museum.


  1. In perfume industry there is a lot of weird sources.

    Seems like stink things when diluted smell good.

  2. Wouldn’t this be banned under some whaling convention? Or does everyone get it from Japan, Iceland, Norway, or aboriginal tribes?

  3. #2 why would they ban whale excrement?

    “In the United States, importing, buying, or selling ambergris — including ambergris that had washed ashore — was considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In 2001 this ruling was overturned, and ambergris was deemed not to be a byproduct of the whaling industry, since the whale expels this substance naturally.”

    You don’t need even to get near a whale to get ambergis.

  4. I *KNEW* that reading all those Encyclopedia Brown books would one day pay off! TAKE THAT, MOM!

  5. 3.14chan @4: Wouldn’t that pose the same issues as, say, ivory? You don’t have to kill the animals, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t get killed for sake of convenience.

  6. Sednaboo @6,
    Actually, you couldn’t kill the whale for the sake of convenience for obtaining Ambergris, as Ambergris obtained straight from the whale is not suitable for use in perfumery.

    Right after it comes out of the whale, either naturally or via whaling, it is sticky, tarry, and smells like feces and vomit. It has none of the subtle notes or fixative qualities that are needed for its use in perfume.

    Only after Ambergris has floated at sea for years, or even better, decades, does it acquire usefulness in perfume. Despite its weird origin and sometimes funky overtones, properly aged natural Ambergris is one of the most amazing scents you can imagine.

    I have a large chunk of it found by Ambergris hunters on a beach in New Zealand, and the smell is like skin, musk, and sea air combined. It’s a beautiful, sexy smell that goes with pretty much any other scent and enhances it and makes it last longer.

    Fresh Ambergris doesn’t fit that bill at all, and despite all the misinformation about it, perfumers know this and there is no market that would support whale killing for Ambergris.


  7. Speaking of connections, by an odd minor coincidence that is meaningful only to me, on Friday I saw the first whale I’ve ever seen – a sperm whale. On Saturday I attended presentations by Olaf Blaaw and Kat Bolstead, who helped to dissect the squid caught by the San Aspiring (see And today I get to read a post on BoingBoing about the Te Papa squid and sperm whales.

    Incidentally, one of Saturday’s speakers reported that squid now make up an increasingly large part of the sperm whale’s diet, as the fish that they would otherwise eat have been hugely overfished. This will presumably lead to more beaks in whale stomachs, leading to more irritation and thus more ambergris, which may be good news for the perfume industry. Of course, as large squid like m. hamiltoni also feed on many of the same species, the decline in fish stocks will hit them too. When the squid population crashes, there won’t be much left for the toothed whales to eat. In the end it may be the commercial fishing industry, rather than the whalers, that drives sperm whales into extinction.

  8. SednaBoo, there is what leavesofjoy said and more one thing.

    Elephants doesn’t expel ivory, this is part of their body, ambergris is naturaly expeled during all whale life. It’s like kill a earthworm to extract humus.

  9. I stopped reading at Connections – this is one of my favorite shows of all time. Last time I checked, you can watch some of the shows on – yep, I just checked. If you haven’t seen them, please do yourself a favor and check it out.

  10. “It’s like kill a earthworm to extract humus.”

    Seriously, that’s where the stuff comes from? I’m never eating that again, and I think I’ll skip the baba ghanoush, too, just to be safe…..;)


  11. #12 leavesofjoy, I was talking about earthworm humus (vermicompost) and not about the dish hummus

    earthworm humus (vermicompost)

    hummus also spelled hamos, houmous, hommos, hommus, hummos, hummous or humus.

    Learn the difference It could save your life ;)

    I know that it was a joke, but better make it clear to avoid the creation of more hoaxes like the one that said that McDonald’s burger is made of earthworms.

  12. Unfortunately, what the poster has done is not what Burke did on Connections. Burke took a problem that humans tried to solve, and then showned how the solution to that problem had unexpected future uses, or how in searching for a solution, the searcher inadvertently came upon a solution for another problem.

  13. The colossal squid’s eyes are 20 to 30 centimeters in diameter!

    Last year in New Zealand a strange fatty substance washed up on a North Island beach. The media reported it could be ambergris and dozens of people, descended and took the chunk apart. Due to my previous job at a company that exports animal byproducts, I was immediately able to tell that what had washed up was the contents of a drum of tallow. It was even drum shaped. Now tallow is not a pleasant substance, especially in an animal grade unprocessed form. I had much satisfaction watching crazy greedy people haul away lumps of smelly tallow!

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