Friday, June 5, 2009

fragrant whale vomit?

So, I was cruising HowStuffWorks, and a headline caught my eye:

How can whale vomit help me retire?

Whoa. Encyclopedia Britannica backs it up: Ambergris is "a solid waxy substance originating in the intestine of the sperm whale. Fresh ambergris is black and soft and has a disagreeable odour. When exposed to sun, air, and seawater, however, it hardens and fades to a light gray or yellow, developing a subtle and pleasant fragrance in the process." An Italian site tells of the powers of ambergris, from its use for pheromones, tea flavorings, and use as an infertility cure.

Experts say you can get about $10 to $20 per gram of ambergris, depending on its quality.

HowStuffWorks offers a few at-home identification tests if you think you may have found aged whale puke:

But there are a couple of tests that you can perform at home to find out if you should even bring that waxy substance to an expert in the first place.
  • Needle test
    Heat a needle over a flame for 15 seconds, and then insert it about an eighth of an inch (.3 cm) into the substance. Does it melt around the needle into a pool of thick, black, bubbling liquid? When you touch that liquid, do you end up with a stringy, tar-like residue on your finger? When you reheat the needle, covered in the melted substance, does it let off a white smoke?
  • Methyl-alcohol test
    Does a sample of the substance dissolve in hot methyl alcohol and crystallize when the alcohol cools?
If the substance passes those tests, the next ones take place in a lab. Chemists will test for benzoic acid and cholesterol in the sample. If the amounts are indicative of ambergris, it will usually be tentatively confirmed as ambergris at this time, although perfume companies will typically order more chemical tests before purchasing the would-be whale vomit.
Why am I just learning about this? Check out more images of this crazy whale barf.