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Mail Gail:
Gail Hennessey

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Chinese Dragon Drool/ Floating Gold


Gail Skroback Hennessey

My dad and I were walking along a beach in western South Australia when we spotted something very unusual. A huge solid grayish glob was lying in the sand. Dad said that the crusty lump was something very special. It was whale vomit!

“Yuck, I said. Whale vomit? You mean a whale threw this up and it landed on the beach?” I asked disgustingly. My dad was very excited as he bent down to take a further look at the big pile of old puke.

“Mariyah, just think how rare it is for vomit from a whale swimming in the ocean to make its way to our beach.” Dad beckoned me to come take a closer look. Pinning my fingers to my nose, I slower came to his side. Dad said I didn’t need to cover my nose and I was surprised that it didn’t have an awful smell. In fact, it wasn’t unpleasant at all.

“Ambergris is the correct term for whale vomit”. Specifically, it is the vomit from the sperm whale. It is made of all the things that sperm whales can’t digest, including the beaks of squid and cuttlefish, the sperm whale’s favorite foods.” explained my dad. He went on to say that being lighter in weight than ocean water, the vomit usually floats along the surface. Exposed to the sun and salt water, it loses its foul odor.

Dad was trying to figure out how much the ambergris weighed and said, “ We have found floating gold, Mariyah! I’d guess this lump of ambergris to weigh about 30 pounds.” beamed my dad. When I asked why he was calling this lump of puke floating gold, he said something really amazing. “ Mariyah, ambergris is used in the making of perfume and is extremely valuable. Why, I read someone found about this amount and it was worth over $300,000!”

“Perfume? You mean the perfume mom gave me for my birthday may be made with whale vomit?” I asked. My dad said probably not since it is used to make very expensive perfumes.

My next questions was simply, “Why?” Dad explained that ambergris is used as a fixative. That means it absorbs and helps keep the scents from changing. It also is used to keep fragrances from evaporating. Today, because it is so rare, and very expensive, many companies use chemicals instead of ambergris in the making of perfumes. But, dad said, ambergris works the best.

Dad also explained that many countries stopped the sale and buying of ambergris to be used in the making of perfumes back in 1972 when the Marine Mammals Protection Act was passed. This ruling placed the whale on the endangered species list. That meant whales, and what they hurled, were protected. Today, many countries are now allowing the use of ambergris, if you can find it. That’s because it was decided that vomit isn’t a living organism and no whale is harmed in obtaining the material.

Dad grinned as he began to share some other things he’d read about ambergris. He told me that the ancient Chinese called it dragon spittle fragrance. The Chinese thought that the stuff found on rocks near the ocean was dragon drool. He said that during the Middle Ages, people thought that carrying some ambergris could help prevent them from getting a terrible disease known as the Black Death. He added, “ Some people in Europe ,during a time called the Renaissance, actually wore balls of ambergris around their necks. Imagine, wearing dried out vomit as jewelry!” And, totally gross. Some people actually put ambergris in their food, like we use cinnamon and salt, to flavor their food.

“ Hmmmm, Dad, I have another question.” How are we going to get this stuff home? Dad laughed and said, “Don’t you worry. We will most certainly find a way!”

Note: Illlustration from