1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: Dog walker discovers valuable whale vomit

By Life's Little Mysteries Assistant Editor
updated 2/1/2013 2:35:33 PM ET 2013-02-01T19:35:33

What's yellowish-gray, stinks to high heaven and is worth tens of thousands of dollars per pound?

Just ask Ken Wilman, whose dog Madge went nuts over a dirty old rock the pair found on a lonely, windswept beach near Morecambe, England. But it wasn't actually a rock: "When I picked it up and smelled it, I put it back down again, and I thought 'urgh,'" Wilman told the BBC.

Wilman didn't think much of the strange blob until he got home and, like any enterprising treasure hunter, immediately did a Google search. The chunky object, Wilman learned, was probably a valuable piece of ambergris, which comes from the digestive tract of the sperm whale and is a very expensive ingredient in luxury fragrances such as Chanel No. 5, the Huffington Post reports.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

Realizing the foul stench emitted by the lump was actually the scent of money, Wilman sprang into action. "When I saw how much it could be worth, I went back to the beach and grabbed it!" Wilman told the Metro.

One French ambergris dealer has already offered Wilman $68,000 for his beach find, though it's probably worth much more. "It's quite a find," Chris Hill, curator at the Aquarium of the Lakes in Cumbria, England, told the Mirror.

"There are places in Europe that will buy it from you," Hill said. "They will age it, like a fine wine, and then test it for perfume. "How much it's worth will depend on how fresh it is, but it's potentially $180,000."

Despite the centuries-old passion for ambergris, nobody's really certain how the sperm whale produces it, or how the whale excretes the lump.

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. At Home with TODAY: Sheinelle Jones is inviting you for the holidays

      Sheinelle Jones may be the newest kid on the TODAY block, but she’s already inviting you over for the holidays. As part of...

    2. Here comes another royal baby!
    3. Gifts of joy: TODAY's Babies of the Week
    4. What a mess! Check out these adorable photos of kids caught red-handed
    5. Get the recipes for 6 cute and creative gingerbread cookies

Most experts agree that whales create ambergris inside their intestines as a kind of fatty coating around sharp, hard-to-digest items, like the beaks of giant squid (a favorite food of the whale), the BBC reports. And squid beaks have been found inside pieces of ambergris.

But while some reports call ambergris "whale vomit," others insist it's not puke. "It's poop," molecular biologist Christopher Kemp told ABC News.

Kemp, the author of "Floating Gold: the Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris" (University Of Chicago Press, 2012), notes that the stuff commands a high price because "only one percent of the 350,000 sperm whales can actually make it," he told ABC News. "Because it's so rare, it's very valuable."

Fearing a flood of fortune hunters looking for ambergris, local authorities in Morecambe are now warning beachcombers of some potential risks involved in their search.

"The tide comes in so very quickly that it catches people unaware," Mike Guy, manager of lifeboat operations for Morecambe, told the BBC. "We're really worried about people just wandering off on the beach searching for ambergris. They're very, very unlikely to find any because it's very rare."

Follow LiveScience on Twitter@livescience. We're also on Facebook  &Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.


Discussion comments


More on TODAY.com

  1. Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

    At Home with TODAY: Sheinelle Jones is inviting you for the holidays

    12/19/2014 4:57:16 PM +00:00 2014-12-19T16:57:16
  1. AFP-Getty Images

    Here comes another royal baby!

    12/19/2014 7:30:30 PM +00:00 2014-12-19T19:30:30
  1. Obama: Sony made a mistake in canceling ‘Interview’ release

    President Barack Obama said Friday that Sony Pictures Entertainment "made a mistake" by nixing the release of a comedic film after the company was hacked and received cyber threats.

    12/19/2014 7:35:43 PM +00:00 2014-12-19T19:35:43
  1. Courtesy Monica Maurer

    Gifts of joy: TODAY's Babies of the Week

    12/19/2014 6:19:44 PM +00:00 2014-12-19T18:19:44