Ambergris is a secretion of the sperm whale that arises from the irritation of the stomach that is caused by the squid beaks. Amber has a dark color of black when freshly expelled with a flabby consistency and a nauseating odor. It takes on a lighter and lighter tinge under the simultaneous action of the atmosphere and seawater. It turns from silver-grey to golden yellow before fading off to white. It gives it a refined characteristic of sweet and very pleasant smell. ‘Spirillum recti physeteris' is a bacterium in the gut of the sperm whale thought to be responsible for the production of the pleasant odor.
The formation of Ambergris
Sperm whales are known to feed on squids which is their primary diet. A single solitary beak of a squid in the belly of a whale represents a three-dimensional map of the world. This implies that there are different species of squid that occupy limited and distinct geographic regions in the gut of the whale. There are species of squids that are found in the depth zones that are completely absent from the rest.
In simpler terms, one squid beak that is trapped in the warm folds of the sperm whale can provide a history of the movement to the cetologists. Whale researchers can learn a lot from the squid beaks found in the whale's belly. The major importance of squid beaks inside the whales can help produce ambergris. A sperm whale has four stomachs like cows and other ruminants.
The ingested food passes from one stomach to the next and the process of digestion goes a long way. Their stomachs begin to fill with non-digested squid remains after repeated dives and bouts of voracious feeding a few miles beneath the surface. The great drifts of sharp, black and durable squid beaks coalesce to form a huge dense glittering mass.
It is normal for a sperm whale to vomit them into the sea every couple days. However, the product of a floating slurry of the indigestible material is not ambergris but the whale's vomit. It is possibly confused by most journals and articles since there are other complex pathologies or processes required to produce ambergris. Occasionally, the pile of squid beaks will pass through all the four stomachs into the whale's looping convoluted intestines. It then forms ambergris by building up around a hardcore in combination with other bacteria.
How ambergris is released into the sea
The squid beaks are normally curved like a parrot's beak and they pass from the whale's stomach, chafing and causing irritation along the way on the delicate intestinal linings. They are farther pushed along the intestines as a growing mass and become an intricate indigestible solid that is saturated with feces. This is the initial stage where it begins to obstruct the rectum which acts as a dam. It causes a buildup of the fecal matter around it and the gastrointestinal system of the whale responds by increasing the absorption of water from the lower intestines.
The feces that saturate the compacted mass of squid beaks transforms gradually into a cement-like structure binding together the slurry permanently. Not only does it become a concretion but a smooth and striated boulder. Temporary feces will make their way again passing between the boulder and the intestinal walls. This makes it grow bigger with the addition of each new layer in the same manner a tree grows. A new growth ring is added year after year forming a large mass.
There are instances when a sperm whale is likely to pass along the ambergris while the growing boulder of the substance is likely to be fatal in others. It completely concludes the gut and the sperm whale will suffer from a severe rupture of the intestinal walls. It is a process that takes several years involving too many strata that have been laid over the top of the others.
It reaches a point where the ambergris thrives to be too large for the gut. The malodorous carcass of the whale will be surrounded by sharks within hours as they are drawn like iron filings to a magnet by the blood in the water. The storm petrels and gulls will settle around the bloated corpse in the water that has begun to leave a trail of a greasy slick of oil through the waves.
From below, the smaller fish will feed on it by tearing the flesh into strips while fighting over the pieces among themselves. At some point, the ruptured intestine will be fed upon by the scavengers and which makes the ambergris to be released in the ocean. Afterwards, the carcass of the whale becomes a floating bounty of food in a place that is challenging with great competition in the food chain.
It only takes weeks for the feeding frenzy to come to an end and the remains are drawn into the darkness by taking one last dive down through the mesopelagic zone. The octopuses and benthic crabs will take their turn in a reversal of fortunes with whatever is left while picking any remaining flesh from the sturdy white bones located on the seafloor.
How does it get to the shore?
You have heard people who have discovered large pieces of ambergris on the shore. If they were released deeper into the sea, how did they manage to get to the shore? The black and viscous ambergris that has been freshly expelled is slightly dense than seawater. After it finds its way out of the whale carcass, it rises slowly, ascending through the currents of the frigid ocean. It eventually reaches the surface where it floats and mostly submerged in water, sometimes for years. It takes decades for it to ride the swell of the southern ocean and life continues back on land a thousand miles away.
The ambergris floats on the sea while surviving the equatorial heat and rolling through the cyclones to the stillness of the Doldrums. It then picks up speed in the horse latitudes only to get trapped in the ocean gyres. These are huge rotating current systems of the ocean where the pieces of flotsam can spend years while navigating. Ambergris will slowly mature at the sea like wine in a bottle.
It reacts with its surroundings until the salt water oxidizes its outer covering, later eroded by the wave action and finally degraded by the sunlight. Later, it gets beached somewhere along a windswept and remote coastline. It can also be dumped by a storm onto a busy or populated stretch of sand in sight of a large metropolitan city, or a wet little bay in Wales. Ambergris can wash ashore to any place where there are sperm whales i.e. in all the world's oceans.
You will have a different aged well-traveled piece of ambergris that has been tossed around the waves for years and thoroughly worked on by the climate in the ocean. Both its color and texture will have evolved from a black lustrous substance to a pale, smooth waxy ball that rolls in the surf. It tends to lose most of the water content over the years, becoming smaller and denser. It developed a hardened exterior that takes a tough, rind-like appearance. Its interior will be flecked with the embedded squid beaks that resemble burnt black seeds. A rich complex odor that is described as sweet, woody and earthy replaces the fecal smell characterized by a freshly expelled ambergris because it has been softened by the sea.
Applications of ambergris
It is a sought-after component of perfumes that are sold in little pebble-sized pieces by the gram to independent vendors or in bulk for those who aren't budget-minded. It is used as an aphrodisiac in many parts of the world and stirred into cups of sweetened tea. It is used as incense across the Middle East in religious ceremonies and eaten in China. Throughout the history, ambergris has been used as an ingredient in cooking, as a medicine, an adornment, a sign of wealth and a component in fragrances. Other people use it as an acknowledgment and celebration of the great and dark unseen mystery of the ocean. In the recent times, most people refer to it as ‘amber' which is a shortened word from ‘ambergris'.
Ambergris is one of the few physical manifestations of the sperm whale that is weathered from its years spent while drifting at sea. It is expelled from an incredibly large mammal that spends most of the time in complete darkness, miles underneath the ocean. Any meaningful details of every journey made by a piece of ambergris are lost in the deep ocean. It does not give up many secrets once it reaches the shore and the journey cannot be replicated and neither its product. Although the ambergris has been synthesized, not all of its synthetic versions are convincing. They always lack something indefinable that can only be gained after spending endless years at the sea. It is no doubt that the whitened pebble washed ashore by the waves has been transformed into a commercialized product.