Scientists on the Canary Island of La Palma had a shock when they discovered £425,000 worth of ‘floating gold’ in a washed up sperm whale’s digestive system.
The 21lbs lump of ambergris found in the beast’s intestines is now on the market, with the discoverer Antonio Fernández Rodríguez hoping to put any receipts towards helping victims of the volcano that erupted on the island two years ago.
The 42ft whale died of sepsis caused by the lump, the scientists’ postmortem revealed, before washing up on Nogales beach last month.
Heavy seas and a rising tide made it difficult to complete the analysis, but Rodríguez, who is head of the institute of animal health and food security at the University of Las Palmas, was determined to complete the mission.
Suspecting a digestive problem, he felt something hard stuck to that part of the intestine.
‘What I took out was a stone about 50-60cm in diameter weighing 9.5kg,’ Rodríguez said.
‘The waves were washing over the whale. Everyone was watching when I returned to the beach but they didn’t know that what I had in my hands was ambergris.’
Ambergris, also known as floating gold or grey amber, is a rare substance – produced by about one in 100 sperm whales – that has been sought after for perfume for hundreds of years.
The question of where the substance comes from was only solved when whaling became more widespread in the early 19th century.
The sea-mammals eat masses of squid and cuttlefish, most of which is indigestible and vomited out.
But some remains, and binds together over time in the whale’s intestines to form ambergris.
That ‘floating gold’ is sometimes excreted, which is why it is mostly found floating in the sea, but sometimes, as in the case with the whale in La Palma, it grows too large, rupturing the intestine and killing the whale.
If the animal’s carcass is found, it can mean a big bonus for some lucky fishermen or beach-goers.
Ambergris is perfect for perfume because of its woody scent and ambrein content – which is an odourless alcohol that can extend the life that scent, or any other.
However, the US, Australia and India have banned the trade in floating gold to deter whaling.
Nevertheless, the University of Las Palmas is looking for a buyer to fund repairs in the wake of the volcanic eruption on the island in 2021, which caused more than £685m in damage, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
‘The law is different in every country,’ Rodríguez commented.
‘In our case, I hope the money will go to the island of La Palma, where the whale ran aground and died.’