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We need whale poo 📷 WDC NA

Whales are our climate allies – meet the scientists busy proving it

At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we're working hard to bring whales and the ocean into...
Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

The whale trappers are back with their cruel experiment

Anyone walking past my window might have heard my groan of disbelief at the news...
Boto © Fernando Trujillo

Meet the legendary pink river dolphins

Botos don't look or live like other dolphins. Flamingo-pink all over with super-skinny snouts and...
Risso's dolphin entangled in fishing line and plastic bags - Andrew Sutton

The ocean is awash with plastic – can we ever clean it up?

You've seen pictures of plastic litter accumulating on beaches or marine wildlife swimming through floating...
Fin whale

Is this the beginning of the end for whaling off Iceland?

I'm feeling cautiously optimistic after Iceland's Fisheries Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir wrote that there is little...
Mykines Lighthouse, Faroe Islands

Understanding whale and dolphin hunts in the Faroe Islands – why change is not easy

Most people in my home country of the Faroe Islands would like to see an...

Dolphin scientists look like you and me – citizen science in action

Our amazing volunteers have looked out for dolphins from the shores of Scotland more than...
Atlantic white-sided dolphins

The Faroes dolphin slaughter that sparked an outcry now brings hope

Since the slaughter of at least 1,423 Atlantic white-sided dolphins at Skálafjørður in my home...

Chapter 92: Ambergris

Today’s Moby Dick chapter is Chapter 92: Ambergris – read by Michael Bracewell. Our Executive Director explains how WDC is working to make the harvesting of whales for products like ambergirs and spermaceti oil a thing of the past.

Ambergris is secreted in the intestines of the sperm whale and while it is usually passed in the fecal matter, it can sometimes be found in the abdomens of whales. Ambergris that forms a mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth leading to the reputation of ambergris as obtained from whale vomit. It can be found floating upon the sea, or more often found on the seashore in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from 15 g to 110 pounds or more.

When initially expelled by, or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in color (sometimes streaked with black), soft, with a strong fecal smell. Following months to years of photo-degradation and oxidation in the ocean, this gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color with a crusty and waxy texture, and has a peculiar odor.

Historically, ambergris was well known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. However, today its use is illegal in many countries and synthetic alternatives are now increasingly being developed. In fact, sustainable alternatives are available for all of the products we used to harvest whale for. Another great example is spermaceti oil, which demand for is still a serious threat to whales.

Spermaceti oil, an amber fluid produced by the tonne in the head cavity of a sperm whale (or isolated from whale oil by refining) is not technically oil at all, but mostly wax esters with a smaller fraction of triglycerides. It hardens on contact with air to provide a firm wax. Spermaceti was originally a source of candle wax and became a staple of the cosmetic industry in the early 20th century due to its similarity to human skin sebum. It also became a core ingredient in industrial lubricants (including in space exploration technology).

The sperm whale paid a heavy price for its utility to man. In just twenty-five years between 1951, when Japan joined the International Whaling Commission, until 1976, Japan and the Soviet Union killed over 220,000 sperm whales. In the 1980s, the cosmetics industry began using alternatives to spermaceti, most notably jojoba oil, also not technically an oil, but a liquid wax that is very similar in structure to spermaceti. Jojoba oil is pressed from the seeds of the desert shrub jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis). Today, over 5,000 tonnes of jojoba oil are used annually in personal care products.

WDC is concerned that, despite the use of jojoba and synthetic substitutes, unscrupulous or unwitting manufacturers of topical preparations may still be using spermaceti as an ingredient, whether sourced from ongoing hunts in Japan and Indonesia, stockpiles or extracted from whale oil. Using simple internet searches, WDC initial investigations identified more than 20 cosmetic or personal care products that claimed to contain spermaceti. Several are apparently available in the USA and European Union although their import would violate CITES.

WDC is now working with the International Jojoba Export Council (IJEC) in highlighting the treat that Spermaceti poses to the protection of whales.

WDC joined with IJEC to successfully oppose a tariff on imports of jojoba esters into the EU, the hub of the cosmetics industry. The tariff would have made it more economic to start using spermaceti when sustainable alternatives are available.

We shall be continuing to investigate this area of growing threat and campaigning to shut down any loopholes that mean that whales could be threatened.