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Valuable ambergris (whale vomit) on Hawaii’s beaches? Not likely.


Photo: Thinkstock

The news of a British man and his canine stumbling onto a rare chunk of “whale vomit” made headlines recently. Ken Wilman’s discovery was yellowish-gray and foul smelling, but it turns out it might also make him rich.

Who would want smelly whale waste—properly called ambergris—anyway? Perfume makers.

Because of its rarity, perfume makers in foreign markets are especially known to pay big bucks for ambergris — as much as thousands of dollars an ounce, according to National Geographic. The Huffington Post reports ambergris is used as an ingredient in perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 and Gucci Guilty.

One couple found a lump on a South Australian beach worth an estimated $295,000, according to the BBC News. Last year, an 8-year-old boy told the Daily Echo he discovered a piece valued at as much as $60,000. The BBC News reported a French dealer offered Wilman $68,000 for his catch.

Since whale season has arrived in Hawaii, locals and tourists might ask: What are the chances of finding ambergris on Hawaii’s beaches?

“Very minimal,” says Christine L. Brammer, spokeswoman for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “I have never in my 12 years of working here heard of anybody finding it.”

That’s because ambergris is produced by sperm whales (specifically males), not the humpback whales that breed near Hawaii’s shorelines every year.

There is a much smaller population of sperm whales located further offshore in Hawaii, Brammer says. Because they spend majority of their life under the sea, though, these creatures immortalized in Moby Dick are a mystery.

What we do know: Sperm whales love to dine on giant squid. And because squid beaks give them an upset stomach, they’ll coat the beaks in protective wax and then expel them, either as feces or vomit. Often referred to as “floating gold,” it could spend years drifting at sea before reaching land.

It’s not impossible ambergris could be found on Hawaii’s beaches. “But it would be rare,” Brammer says.

Be warned, it could be tough to find a buyer even if you do stumble onto whale’s waste.

“It is unlawful for anyone within the jurisdiction of the United States to acquire ambergris through their own efforts or by importation,” according to Take Tomson, special agent in NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, in an email. “Simply: it is unlawful to possess, sell or transport ambergris.” Beachcombers are to leave it, or report it to NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement at 203-2500.

No matter what its potential value, just remember, ambergris is still whale vomit.


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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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