‘Whale vomit’ or ambergris (French for grey amber) is a waxy substance that the intestines of sperm whales produce. The perfume industry uses it to make scents last longer. The substance is extremely rare and found in less than 5% of sperm whale carcases, so it is very expensive. It is no wonder that fishermen consider ambergris a treasure and also called ‘floating gold’.
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It is this treasure that 35 fishermen from civil war-stricken Yemen chanced upon. One of the fishermen told the BBC that a man from Seriah in southern Yemen informed him and several others that a whale carcass was floating in the ocean. He says that they decided to check it out as there was a possibility that the whale contained ambergris, and that they had the same feeling when they got to the carcass. They decided to hook it and take it to shore to cut up its belly. And they were right, the whale did have ambergris, ₹10 Crore worth of it. A life-changing amount for the fishermen.
Yemen has been in civil war since 2014, with the UN stating that nearly 80% of the population requires some form of humanitarian aid and protection and that nearly 70% of the country’s districts were prone to famine. It is in this backdrop that these 35 fishermen have stumbled on the whale vomit.
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They divided the profits equally among themselves, and also shared some money with people who helped them and people who were in need of money in their village. They have used the money to buy houses, boats, and cars. One of the fishermen told the BBC that he would ge married. Despite having chanced on an incredible sum of money, they have not abandoned their trade and continue to go fishing.
Ambergris is only found in sperm whales. Sperm whales eat large quantities of cephalopods, like squid and cuttlefish. These cephalopods have beaks and other body parts that aren’t digestible. Usually, the whale vomits it out. But on rare occasions, they pass through the whale intestine. It produces ambergris to smoothen the passage and prevent damage to its internal organs. Apparently, whales eventually regurgitate the solid mass and hence the name “whale vomit”.
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P.S. Don’t think of going whale hunting just yet. Ambergris is a prohibited item in India as the sperm whale is an endangered species. You will be booked under sections of the Wildlife Protection Act if found dealing with it.