Ken Wilman was walking along a Lancashire beach recently when his dog became interested in a large, smelly rock sitting on the sand. Not realizing what the curious pooch had found, Wilman left it there. But he quickly returned after an internet search revealed what the rock actually was — ambergris.
[ Related: Whale-poop find may fetch man $180,000 ]
Ambergris is a hard, waxy substance produced in the guts of sperm whales. It forms from bile and it is thought to stay in a whale's intestines to help it break up anything hard that it swallows (like an octopus beak). It is usually passed from the whale's body along with fecal matter, but in the case of larger chunks, the whale typically needs to vomit it out. This (along with the rather disgusting fecal smell it gives off at first) has led many to begin referring to it as "whale vomit" or "whale poop." But I doubt anyone would refer to one of their gallstones (about the closest analogy to ambergris our bodies can produce) as their vomit or poop. Besides, "floating gold" is probably a better nickname for ambergris anyway.
So, why would such a vile-sounding substance be worth the $180,000 that Wilman's find has been estimated at?
[ Related: Mysterious purple spheres found in Arizona desert ]
Although ambergris was apparently part of a favourite meal of King Charles II of England, you're not likely to find it on many menus these days (if any at all). Its value comes from how rare it is and the fact that, over time, that fecal odour turns into a much sweeter-smelling aroma. It has been used as perfume for centuries. Today, the perfume industry uses a synthetic version, however, some of the top perfumers will still pay top dollar for the real thing.
Word is that Wilman has already been offered the equivalent of over $67,000 for it by a French perfumer, but it seems he is wisely going with that old business tip: "never take the first offer." I really hope that he buys his dog a spectacular gift with the money he gets from this find.
Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!