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Ecomare Finds Ambergris in Sperm Whale

Posted: April 8, 2013

The carcass of the sperm whale that washed ashore on a sandbank off Texel in the Netherlands in December has led to a discovery of ambergris, a rare substance similar to musk which is used in creating perfume and fragrance.

While dissecting the animal, employees of Ecomare, a nature museum of National Park Dunes of Texel, found in the sperm whale's intestines an uncommonly large amount of ambergris, which are are extremely rare and of tremendous value for the perfume industry.  

The nearly 30‐ton adult male sperm whale died at sea and washed ashore on the Razende Bol, a Dutch sand bar in the North Sea. Enormous chunks of ambergris, weighing a total of 83 kilograms, emerged out of the rectum of the sperm whale. Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on earth and are not often found in the North Sea. Finding a dead sperm whale was already unusual; discovering a large amount of ambergris in the body made it unique, according to Ecomare. 

Ambergris is only found in one out of every 100 sperm whale bodies, usually in small amounts. Ecomare said it’s not very clear why some sperm whales produce ambergris and others don’t; it probably helps to ease the passage of sharp food parts, such as beaks from squid, so that no damage occurs. Healthy sperm whales vomit these squid beaks as soon as they enter their first or second stomach. Some sperm whales have a leak between the second and third stomach, whereby the sharp beaks move further into the gastrointestinal tract. The whale produces ambergris as a reaction to the irritation the sharp beaks cause. Normally, it is excreted but sometimes large amounts collect in the intestines and cause clogging. Experts from France have examined the ambergris for Ecomare. Based upon the quality, Ecomare said the experts have estimated its value to be a few tons. This find is also of exceptional importance for scientists; the University of Utrecht’s veterinary department examined the lumps of amber using a CAT‐scan and X‐ray.

The ambergris from the Texel sperm whale will eventually be sold since Ecomare said it is too valuable to be displayed. After consultation with The Government of the Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ecomare it was clear that any proceeds could benefit the objective of this center: education and information related to the wadden and the North Sea. A small lump of the ambergris will stay at Ecomare and will be exhibited along with the skeleton of the sperm whale. A cast has been made of the total amount and will also be exhibited in the museum. Visitors will be able to view the skeleton as it is put together in the coming months.