What does ambergris look like?

Ambergris is often referred to as "whale vomit", but that's not really correct. A more accurate analogy would be to say that ambergris is like the whale equivalent of a hairball. It's produced in the whale digestive tract, possibly to protect intestines from the sharp, pointy beaks of squid — you'll often find squid beaks embedded in the stuff. Most of it gets pooped out. But the big chunks of ambergris have to exit the other direction. In the human world, these lumps — which have the consistency of soft rock or thickly packed potting soil — are famous because we use them to make things like perfume. The ambergris washes up on beaches, people collect it, and sell it to make cosmetics.

Anyway, that's what usually happens. Recently, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Holland and the conservationists who dissected it found a huge quantity of ambergris in the animal's intestines.

That news made me realize that I'd never actually seen a picture of ambergris before, so I went hunting around to see what the stuff looked like. That's a photo of a lump of ambergris, above. But it's not really indicative of what ambergris looks like all the time. In fact, as far as I can tell, the stuff comes in a wide variety of shapes and colors — ranging from stuff that looks like small brown pebbles to yellow-green globs covered in bubbly nodules. The diversity is worth perusing. This website, for a company that buys and sells ambergris, has several nice photos. And Google image search turned up a plethora of pics that really capture how different one lump of ambergris can be from another.


  1. The Museum of Natural History in Cleveland recently had a whale exhibit come through and they had a big chunk of ambergris in a box on display. On top of the box was a lid you could lift to reveal some holes drilled allowing you to smell the ambergris. To me, it smelled just like a cigar! It was really cool. 

    Here’s the exhibit, it’s in NY now: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/exhibitions/whales/

  2. Yes its odd stuff indeed. Never quite figured out why various 17th Century high status types liked it grated on their eggs though. Reactions I have seen from trying this recipe range from meh to projectile spitting of the said eggs across the kitchen!

    My guess is it was a conspicuous consumption thing.

  3. From that story on the dead whale:  “…experts from France have examined the ambergris for Ecomare and based upon the quality, have estimated its value to be a few tons.”

    Value in “tons”? Is that like 2,240 GBP?

    BTW, not sure BoingBoing should be linking to that awful site. CosmeticsDesign-Europe.com has a horrible anti-sharing popup when you attempt to copy any text.

  4. Weird – I was looking up the meaning of this word just yesterday because it is found in the lyrics for Rush’s “The Fountain of Lamneth”. 

  5. I was just reading a Patrick O’Brian book, and it makes mention of ambergris, thanks for the info Maggie! 

  6. I have smelled chunks of genuine ambergris on a couple of occasions.  When you look at it, that last thing you want to do is take a good sniff of it.  The aroma, however, is indescribably beautiful & a little goes a long way. While it was originally used in perfumery as a fixative, it evolved into a component to add depth to fragrances.  Many fragrance companies will not use it or any other animal products (civit, musk) so synthetic substitutes have been formulated to varying degrees of success. 

  7. Obligatory mention of chapters from “Moby Dick”, specifically, Chapter xci,

    1. We learned in 8th grade English class that the sailors kneading the ambergris in Moby Dick was a metaphor for gay sex.

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