Professor Finds $500,000 Worth of ‘Floating Gold’ Inside Dead Whale

By: Georgia | Published: Jan 04, 2024

In a recent event on Nogales Beach, La Palma, Canary Islands, a deceased sperm whale was found, leading to an unexpected discovery during its autopsy.

This incident has garnered significant attention due to the rare and valuable find within the whale’s remains, unveiling a hidden aspect of marine biology and its potential economic implications.

The Cause of Death: An Unusual Autopsy Result

The whale’s death, initially a mystery, was investigated by Antonio Fernández Rodríguez, head of the Institute of Animal Health and Food Security at the University of Las Palmas.

A large, irregularly shaped chunk of ambergris with a mottled appearance, showing a mix of translucent and opaque areas in shades of grey, black, and brown, presented against a red textured background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the autopsy, Rodríguez discovered an obstruction in the whale’s colon. This obstruction was not only unusual but also turned out to be the likely cause of the mammal’s demise.

Identifying the Mysterious Object

Rodríguez extracted a large stone-like object from the whale, measuring approximately 60 centimeters in diameter and weighing 9.5 kilograms.

Several rough, grey-brown pieces of ambergris are placed in a brown ceramic bowl with a blue interior

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The object was identified as ambergris, a rare and valuable substance. The discovery of ambergris in this context is rare, as it is produced by less than one percent of sperm whales.

The Value of Ambergris

Ambergris is a highly prized substance in certain industries, particularly in perfume making.

A person's hand with polished red fingernails is holding a clear glass bottle of COCO CHANEL Mademoiselle perfume

Source: Laura Chouette/Unsplash

The piece found within the whale in La Palma was exceptionally valuable, estimated to be worth over $500,000. Its rarity and usefulness in perfumery make ambergris a sought-after commodity in the global market.

Understanding Ambergris

Contrary to popular belief, ambergris is not whale vomit, but a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.

An image of an adult and a baby sperm whale captured underwater. The whales are oriented horizontally with its belly facing the ocean floor, showcasing its massive size in comparison to the baby whale

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It forms from indigestible parts of the whale’s diet, primarily squid and cuttlefish. Over time, this substance can accumulate and harden, eventually being expelled by the whale.

The Fatal Impact of Ambergris on the Whale

The ambergris blockage in the whale’s intestine led to fatal sepsis.

The fluke of a whale is captured mid-dive against the backdrop of a calm blue ocean. Droplets of water cascade from the tail's edges, and the distant shoreline is visible

Source: Michael Behrens/Unsplash

This situation highlights a rare but serious risk for sperm whales, where the production of ambergris, typically harmless, can occasionally lead to health complications or even death.


Sale of Ambergris for a Charitable Cause

After the discovery, plans were made to sell the ambergris.

A wide-angle view of a volcanic crater with scattered greenery emerging from the dark volcanic soil

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The funds raised from this sale are intended to support the victims of the 2021 volcano eruption on La Palma.


International Laws Governing Ambergris

The legality of possessing and selling ambergris varies from country to country. In some regions, it is a banned substance, while in others, it is legal.

Close-up of three lumpy, brownish pieces of ambergris with a rough texture, displayed on a navy blue surface

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The sale of the ambergris from the La Palma whale is being conducted under the legal framework of the region, with the hope of benefiting the local community.


Ambergris in Perfumery

Ambergris is highly valued in the perfume industry due to its unique properties. It can vary in scent, often described as ranging from sweet to musky.

A close-up of a person's hands holding an open transparent perfume bottle labeled 'LILYBELL 07 eau de parfum.' The cap is being held near the nozzle, ready to be placed back on

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The substance also contains ambrein, a component used in perfumes to enhance and sustain their fragrance.


Ethical Concerns and Alternatives to Ambergris

The use of ambergris, while valuable, raises ethical concerns regarding whale conservation.

A deceased sperm whale lies on its side near the rocky shore, with its mouth slightly open

Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are ongoing discussions in the scientific community about the need to protect whales and consider synthetic alternatives to ambergris, which would help in reducing the exploitation of marine life.


Ambergris: A Path to Prosperity for Some

In certain cases, the discovery of ambergris has led to significant financial gain. For example, a group of fishermen in the Gulf of Aden found a chunk of ambergris worth approximately $1.5 million.

A fishing boat is silhouetted against a vibrant orange sunset sky. Multiple seabirds are in flight around the vessel, suggesting an active fishing area. The ocean is depicted with dark, rolling waves

Source:Knut Troim/Unsplash

This discovery dramatically improved fishermen’s economic circumstances, allowing them to invest in homes, vehicles, and boats.


Reflecting on the Ambergris Discovery

The discovery of ambergris in the sperm whale at La Palma serves as a reminder of the ocean’s mysteries and the value they can hold.

The tail of a sperm whale is visible above the water's surface, in the middle of a dive. Water droplets are visible around the whale's tail, which stands against a backdrop of a coastline with green hills and mountains in the distance

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While the whale’s death was unfortunate, the subsequent findings have contributed to scientific understanding and offered a potential benefit to the local community affected by natural disasters.