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Sperm whales eject an intestinal slurry called ambergrisinto the ocean, where the substance hardens as it bobs along. Eventually it gets collected along shores.
The value of ambergris lies in its role in the fragrance industry. High-end perfumes from houses such as Chanel and Lanvin take advantage of the ability of ambergris to fix scent to human skin.
The smell of ambergris itself varies from piece to piece, ranging from earthy to musky to sweet. If a perfume house’s “nose”—the person responsible for choosing scents—likes the aroma, the ambergris can be worth thousands an ounce.
Though it is illegal to use ambergris in perfumes in the U.S. because of the sperm whale’s endangered status, foreign markets, especially French, remain strong.
Scientists still don’t know for sure the exact origins of ambergris. They do know that when sperm whales have a stomach or throat irritant, often a squid beak, they cover it in a greasy substance and cast it out.