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Above 'The Flurry,' William Duke, 1815-1853. Image: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office (TAHO)

Ambergris is commonly known to be solidified sperm whale vomit. However, vomit is an inadequate definitional synonym for ambergris because ambergris is not something regurgitated. Produced in roughly one to three percent of sperm whales’ rectums, ambergris is leftover matter that does not decay with the organs, flesh and skin that once encased it, much like bones. It can also be the material remains of a deathly explosion.

Ambergris develops because sperm whales’ anuses can only pass fluid. If the sphincter between a whale’s stomach and intestines becomes loose, the hard beaks and quills of the squid the whale feeds on may slip through. This solid material becomes trapped in the whale’s rectum where it gathers and grows, as faecal matter streams by on its way to the anus then ocean, glossing coat after coat to the object’s surface, and as other solids sneak through to join up with it. So too, the whale’s rectum grows, becoming increasingly distended until, one day, it ruptures, and the ambergris is born into the sea while the whale dies with its rectum in tatters.

Erin's object: Ambergris on the west coast of Tasmania
Erin’s object: Ambergris on the west coast of Tasmania
Image: Erin Hortle

When it’s fresh, ambergris smells like briny cow shit, or it smelt like that to me when I sniffed this piece, pictured here. This wasn’t what I expected, considering ambergris is an integral ingredient of perfume. It is unsurpassed as a scent stabilizer and fixer and at times it has been worth more than its equivalent weight in gold; and there it was, sitting on the shoreline of a beach in the remote south west of Tasmania.

If you are human, you can only get here by boat or days on foot. But if you are buoyant ambergris, or if you are marine debris—perhaps carelessly tossed into the ocean, or inadequately fastened to a ship—you can ride the Roaring Forties across the Indian Ocean to arrive on Tasmania’s western shores.

I’ve struck gold, I thought to myself, gazing at the ambergris. But I hadn’t. Under Australian law, sperm whales are a protected species, and humans are not allowed export their products and thus cannot capitalize upon ambergris’s monetary worth. This legislation was enacted because, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Australian whalers decimated the whale populations that use the bays here for breeding and calving, or stopovers, as they range the oceans.

Sperm whale
Sperm Whale
Image: Amila Tennakoon / Flickr.

The Anthropocene doesn’t just collapse us into one species here and now; it collapses us throughout time: we humans are culpable for the now and here, and we are culpable for the damage caused by past generations who lived and consumed across the globe, as well as responsible for the quality of life for those to come, be they human or nonhuman. As a whole, we are guilty on too many counts to count, and as individuals, we are powerless to atone for our species enough. Anti-whaling legislation can be read in this context. It recalls the violence Australians inflicted upon nonhumans in the past and it’s a set of national biopolitical legislation that seeks to monitor humans and safeguard whales in the now and into the future. It seeks to safeguard them, but can it, really?

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

As much as we love the oceans, they aren’t Australia’s. They are globalized, and globalized by many things: by the migratory patterns of nonhuman animals, like whales; by the movements of insentient things, like ambergris; or like rubbish and debris that journey on currents and surf storms. And the oceans, along with the rest of the planet, are also globalized by our outpouring of carbon emissions.

The ambergris that lay between my toes and at the toes of the ocean is priceless because one whale died to birth it, because so many whales died to birth Australia’s anti-whaling legislation, and because so many more whales will die in the years to come as the oceans become increasingly warmed and polluted.


Erin Hortle is a Hobart-based writer of essays and fiction and a creative writing PhD student at the University of Tasmania.

Below 'The death flurry' by Oswald W. B. Brierly, 1865. Image: National Library of Australia