The Big Bang of Ambergris in Maldives

Maldives Promotion House – Maldivian culture is rich. It’s ripe with fictions as well as truth. However folklores that have been passed on from generation to generation have been replaced with more modern versions.  But with that, artefacts of history, the elements that gave those stories meaning have been lost in time.

One of those is the Ambergris. Thought to be abundant in ancient Maldives, it was once a common and valuable substance that early Maldivian fisher folk often came across. Over the many decades, its appearance has decreased tremendously.

Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of and regurgitated or secreted by Sperm Whales. Though whales have been occasionally been spotted in the Maldivian waters, Sperm Whales are not very common. Despite it having the largest brain of any mammal, it is a species that has been deemed as threatened and vulnerable.

Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, faecal odour. However, as it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency. The principal historical use of ambergris was as a fixative in perfumery, though it has now been largely displaced by synthetics.

Ambergris occurs as a biliary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or in the sand near the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorised that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whales might eat.

Though ambergris is usually passed in the faecal matter, 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 primarily coming from whale vomit.

Despite its long term absence in the Maldivian waters, it has once again resurfaced. Reports of varying quantities of ambergris in the Maldivian water have flooded local news papers.  During the past two months seafarers have reported finding them floating on water rather than on the shores of the many Islands Maldives is made up of.  This year alone, about 10 huge chunks of ambergris weighing 20 to 30 kilograms have been found and sold at tens of millions of MVR. The high value of ambergris is common knowledge in Maldives. However many have as well been faced with difficulties in trading it. This also raises the question of how valuable it really is.

Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. While perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world, American perfumers usually avoid it because of legal ambiguities. It was banned from use in many countries in the 1970s, including the United States, because its precursor originates from the sperm whale, which is a vulnerable species.

Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. The ancient Chinese called the substance ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’. During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.

This substance has also been used historically used as flavouring for food, and contrary to scientific research some people consider it an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.

While ambergris may have lost much of its former value it is still a substance that carries a substantial price tag. Though its use has been largely replaced by synthetic chemicals, ambergris holds a certain amount of cultural value to Maldives. While the sudden increase of ambergris in Maldives is yet to be definitively explained, it may mean a tremendous increase in Sperm Whales in the waters of Maldives. Though divers in Maldives have not reported a drastic change in the numbers of this endangered species, it just might be about to change.

Experts have however speculated that whales have begun to migrate towards the warm waters of Indian Ocean in search of food. It has also been speculated that the tides of the season maybe bringing in ambergris from different locations of the Indian ocean, towards Maldives.

For now we can only speculate, and our questions may go unanswered for a long time. Are the whales migrating? Will the ambergris reports increase? Will stories that have been long forgotten, return? Are the Maldivian waters about to experience a major change? Is this a by product of climate change?

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