Lots of businesses claim to be green these days. Some businesses are really working hard to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals, reducing waste, stopping animal testing, and treating employees fairly. Unfortunately, many green claims are little more than advertising gimmicks. The situation, however, is even worse outside the United States.
Pesticides long banned in the U.S. are still in use in many countries. Chemical plants that would have been shut down long ago in America are going strong in many other nations.
A surprising example of this dichotomy of values hit the news in January of this year when an unemployed British man and his dog found an odd smelling lump on Lancashire Beach in England. This 6-pound lump could be worth as much as $180,000 in markets outside the U.S. to an unlikely group - the perfume industry.
This odd material is known as ambergris. Sperm whales eject this odd material from their intestines into the ocean. Some think that the irritation in the intestine caused by ingesting hundreds of pounds of squid per day, along with their hard shell-like beaks, produces a hard mass over the years that is ambergris. Sometimes the whale passes the mass along with other waste. Other times it cannot and the mass grows with each passing year. If not excreted, the mass can result in a fatal blockage that will eventually kill the whale.
The dead carcass, far out at sea, becomes a bounty of food for thousands of creatures. At some point in the feeding frenzy, which can take weeks, the intestines will be opened and the ambergris mass will begin its oceanic journey. It doesn't happen all the time and is, in fact, quite rare. Only an estimated 1 percent of the remaining 350,000 sperm whales worldwide produce ambergris.
The substance hardens as it bobs along in the ocean – it is less dense than water so it floats - interacting with the sunlight and seawater. It may float for decades and wind up on a shore thousands of miles away. High-end perfumes from makers such as Chanel and Lanvin seek out ambergris because of its ability to fix scent to human skin, making perfumes linger and last longer. Placing a tiny bit of ambergris on a drop of floral essence on a piece of paper can keep the scent stable for four decades.
Because the sperm whale is endangered, it is illegal to use ambergris in the U.S. Other countries have no such hesitation and ambergris is sought after throughout the world.
Ambergris has been known for some time. It is known that it was traded in Africa as early as 1000 B.C. Around the same time, the Chinese thought it was the spittle of sea dragons sleeping on sea rocks and drooling into the ocean. The ancient Egyptians used it as incense. In the 10th century, Arab traders valued it as an aphrodisiac and considered it as valuable as gold.
In the Near East and Rome, ambergris was used in perfume making and in Asia it was a spice used in cooking.
During the height of the slaughter of sperm whales in the 1800's and early 1900's, whalers butchered whales for their oil and searched for the prized ambergris. In 1908, a 1,003 pound chunk of ambergris came out of a sperm whale killed in Norway.
Used in trace amounts in perfumes, it serves as a fixing agent and, as described at a French website that buys and sells ambergris, "for exalting other delicate and evanescent fragrance notes . . . and that it imparts velvetiness to fine and expensive perfumes."
Last year, Canadian scientists discovered that ambergris can be synthetically engineered from the gene of the balsam fir tree. Other substitutes include plants such as the bede-balm, the common rockrose and others.
But global trade in ambergris continues to this day, but it is shrouded in secrecy. While it is found occasionally on beaches, Chris Kemp, a neuroscientist from Grand Rapids, Mich., spent years investigating the ambergris business. In his book, "Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris," he says, “If you believe what you read in the media,” he says, “you’d think ambergris is something that people just find by accident.” The truth, he claims, is far more clandestine. “There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris. They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore.” And when whale-poop gold is on the line, he says, “it can get violent.”
He documents another case where, several years ago, ambergris collector Ross Sherman in New Zealand, was hit by a car on Baylys Beach, driven by John James Vodanovich, one of his main competitors. Sherman fought back with a PVC pipe and escaped with minor injuries.
In the U.S., trade in ambergris is prohibited by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which includes the sperm whale, declared an endangered species on June 2, 1970. The Act states that it is unlawful to possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, or ship by any means whatsoever any parts or products of an endangered species taken within the United States. Perfumers in the United States are not allowed to buy or sell it or perfumes containing ambergris.
Even though trading in ambergris is strictly forbidden by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty, it is easy to find websites on the web that offer to buy and sell ambergris. One in France and one in Dubai seem the most prominent. Not all countries signed the CITES treaty and the ban is not enforced.
Some buyers and sellers claim that CITES does not prohibit the use of found ambergris. During the 33rd Meeting of CITES in Brussels on Mar 3, 2005 (Note 14 of Reg 1497/2003), it was written that "the committee agreed on an understanding that in principle, urine, faeces and ambergris were not covered by Council Regulation 338/97 unless there was evidence of 'manipulation' ". So while killing a whale and taking the ambergris is not allowed, many interpret this statement as meaning that found ambergris can be used.
Those that subscribe to this interpretation forget that any use of ambergris could increase the demand and encourage the killing of sperm whales, which is still taking place around the world.
If you think you have found some, see if it matches this description by ambergris expert, Christopher Kemp from his book, "Found Gold."
"By the time an aged and well–traveled piece of ambergris arrives on the shore, though, it is different. It has been worked on by the ocean, tossed around on the waves for years like a single grain of wheat in a vast combine. Depending on how long it has been at sea, its color and texture will have evolved from a black tar–like substance to a pale, smooth waxy ball, rolling in the surf. Over the years, it loses most of its water content. It becomes smaller and denser. Its exterior hardens and takes on a tough rind–like appearance. More than anything else, it now resembles a light gray stone—a little like pumice stone, chalk, or dried clay. Its surface might have a shiny patina to it; its interior will be flecked with embedded squid beaks, like burnt black seeds. It smells pungently and, as it evolves, it undergoes another transformation: the fecal smell that characterizes freshly expelled ambergris gradually softens at sea and is replaced by a rich complex odor described variously as sweet, woody, earthy, and marine."
As you are beachcombing, wondering if you are looking at this valuable substance, reflect on the wonder of nature. How amazing that the natural feeding process of the magnificent sperm whale can sometimes create a catastrophic death that provides food for thousands of creatures out in the middle of the ocean. And reflect on the tragic actions of humans who are willing to sacrifice this amazing creature for an industry based on vanity and greed.