Ambra Grisea. Ambra gris. Secreted by the Sperm whale, Physeter Macrocephalus. It is a hard, waxy substance amber in colour, sometimes grey’ish often found floating on the surface of the sea.
Produced in the digestive system of the sperm whale, it is suggested that it may be a bile duct secretion. In life, the lining membranes of the lower gut of the Sperm whale is covered in Ambra gris. It is a secretion passed in faecal matter or by regurgitation.
Little is known in detail about the Sperm whale as it spends much of its time in the deep ocean. It can dive for up to 45 minutes at a time, to a depth of 2.5 miles, average dives being 985 metres in depth and surfaces only to breathe. Its characteristic ‘blow’ of spume in exhalation characterises its surface behaviour, made known by the phrase of Stubbs, one of the mates of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s novel Mobie Dick[i]: ‘there she blows’. Hunted easily by man in past centuries for they need to rest on the surface for up to ten minutes, the Sperm whale is now protected by the CITES[ii] convention.
The largest of the toothed whales (Odontocetes), its large head making up to 25 – 30% of its total length. The head contains the Spermeceti organ and underlying ‘junk’ both set above the upper jaw and anteriorly to the parabolic shaped facial region of the skull. These structures are composed of spongy, oil – filled tissue enclosed in a muscular case bounded at both ends by air sacs. The spermaceti organ is responsible for the striking echo location capabilities in sperm whales (Whitehead, 2009).
The single blow hole is set in front of the head and is characteristically off set to the left (a simple way of identifying a Sperm whale) and is S – shaped. The characteristic ‘blow’ is up to 5 metres high and is projected to the left due to the off – set blow hole.
The Sperm whale spends 72% of its time in foraging dive cycles. While foraging, they make repeated long dives. Descent to depth as well as return to the surface can be nearly vertical. During the initial phase of descent, the whales remain quiet, but after reaching a depth of between 100 – 220 metres they initiate a series of clicks emitted in intervals of 0.5 – 1 second. Watwood et al, 2006 found that Sperm whales descend to a mean depth of 292 metres from the start of this regular clicking to the first buzz, ie., accelerated clicks associated with prey detection, which supports the hypothesis that regular clicks function as a long range biosonar.
Distribution: One of the animals with the widest distribution on the globe. It ranges from the margins of the ice pack in both hemispheres as far as the equator, but is concentrated in ‘grounds’, areas of high marine productivity. Such areas can measure a few hundred kilometres and may contain hundreds or even thousands of Sperm whale (Rice 1989; Whitehead, 2009). Both sexes have very distinct distributions when mature. Females prefer water temperatures above 15 degrees Celsius and low latitudes within 40 degrees North and 40 degrees South (except for the North Pacific where they migrate to higher latitudes).
Young males will usually remain with the females until they reach 4 – 21 years of age; then they will migrate to the higher latitudes. The males may range to the sea ice edge, preferring the vastly rich nutrient and productive waters ie., deep sea canyons off Andenes, the Lofoten islands, Northern Norway. The males being larger require more food, possibly also because they range so much further than the females in terms of latitude. The females preferring warmer waters for their nurseries, such as the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
The males reach 16 – 18 metres in length and 45,000 – 57,000kg (Whitehead, 2009; Jefferson et al 2008). Females reach approximately 11 metres in length with a body mass of 15,000kg.
Cohesion among the males within a bachelor school declines as the animals age and they generally move to higher latitudes during their prime breeding period and old age male sperm whales are generally solitary (Christal and Whitehead, 1997).
Females become sexually mature at 7 – 13 years of age. Peak breeding season in the northern hemisphere occurs between March/April – June, and in the southern hemisphere between October and December (Best et al, 1984). Gestation lasts 14 – 16 months and females lactate for two years. The inter-birth interval is 4 – 6 years for prime aged females. Puberty in males usually begins between the ages of 10 and 20 years and most individuals do not become fully mature until their late twenties (Best, 1979).
Sperm whales forage in mesopelagic and benthic habitats, mainly for cephalopods, usually squid but also occasionally fish (Clarke et al, 1993). The yearly turnover of biomass catches by Sperm whales is estimated to be comparable to the total catches of human fisheries. Cephalopod beaks are often found in the stomachs of stranded animals.
‘Incidental capture in fishing gear, such as gill nets and bottom set longline gear, continues to take its toll on Sperm whale populations. They have been found as by- catch in pelagic drift gill nets targeting swordfish and tuna in US East coast waters (Waring et all, 1997) and in artisanal gillnets targeting sharks and large pelagic fish off the Pacific coast of Central America and Mexico (Palacios and Gerrodette, 1996).
Urine faeces and Ambergris are waste products not considered parts or derivatives of CITES species and are therefore not covered by the provisions of the convention. However, many countries also ban these products and the trade in Ambergris as part of a more general ban on the hunting and exploitation of whales (including Australia and the US).
Because Sperm whales spend long periods, typically up to ten minutes (Jacquet et al, 1998) ‘rafting’ at the surface between deep dives they are increasingly subject to collision from ships.
Researchers have noted changes in ventilation and vocalisation patterns (Richter et al, 2006) where whales will spend less time at the surface and adjust their breathing intervals and acoustic behaviours (Gordon et al, 1992) when subject to whale watching activities. It is suggested this must have a corresponding effect on their foraging ability and are possible signs of increased stress.
The Sperm whale (Physeter Macrocephalus) is on Appendix I of CITES convention and Appendix I and II of CMS[iii], which means that it is endangered with the threat of extinction, which are or may be affected by trade.
Information courtesy of CMS (Convention on Migratory Species Secretariat, Bonn, Germany).
Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, varying from 15 kg – 50kg, sometimes more. When initially expelled by or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of Ambergris is pale in colour, sometimes streaked with black, soft with a strong faecal odour. Subject to photo-gradation and oxidation in the ocean, eroded by wave action, it eventually hardens, developing a dark grey or black colour with a crusty, waxy texture and ‘peculiar odour sweet, earthy, marine and animalic’[iv] (cf. Wikipedia).
The ancient Egyptians burned Ambergris as incense.
Ambergris is widely known for its use in the perfume industry and remains highly prized. It acts as a fixative and as a fragrance amplifier. Originally, Ambergris was heated in alcohol, cooled and through oxidation, to form Ambrox and Ambrinol, the main odour components of Ambergris.
More commonly used now in the perfume industry is the synthetic Ambroxan.
Ambroxan now widely used in perfumery, is one of many synthetics made to emulate natural ambergris.
Perfumes can still be found containing Ambergris[v] (cf. Spitznagel, Eric. Floating Gold: Treasures of the Deep. Bloomberg Business Week. Jan 12, 2012).
The lives of Sperm whales are still mostly shrouded in mystery in a collection of theories rather than facts. They simply leave our world behind and dive into another.
In the past, a large bull could yield as much as 4 tons of valuable oil. Prized by whalers as lamp oil and as material for candle making and used world – wide as a commercial lubricant, the oil turns white and congeals on contact with the air. It earned the whale its name when it was mistaken for semen.
Squid beaks help the body to produce ambergris. Robert Clarke, world expert on ambergris explains in the ‘Origins of Ambergris’ in 2006, included in the ton of squid a Sperm whale eats daily are several thousand squid beaks. Like cows and other ruminants, a sperm whale has four stomachs. Food passes from one stomach to the next and is digested along the way. Steadily, after repeated dives and bouts of voracious feeding a mile beneath the surface, the stomachs slowly begin to fill with non – digested squid beak remains: great drifts of sharp, black, durable squid beaks, which coalesce to form large dense glittering mass. Every couple of days, a Sperm whale will vomit them into the ocean. This is normal. Importantly, the product a floating slurry of indigestible material, is not Ambergris. It is whale vomit…’
To produce Ambergris, other processes, complex pathologies are required. Occasionally, the mass of squid beaks and pens makes its way through each of the whales four cavernous stomachs and into its looping convoluted intestines instead. Once there, it can become Ambergris.
Clarke wrote: ‘Now once in the Antarctic in 1948 aboard the Southern Harvester I examined a Sperm whale whose cylindrical last stomach was entirely filled with a compacted mass of squid beaks, squid pens and nematode worms. The mass was 1.2 metres in length and 0.4 metres in diameter. This last stomach is normally empty except for a few small beaks, pens and nematode cuticles. We have only to imagine an imperfect valve, a leaky sphincter between this last stomach and the intestine, when all conditions are set for a train of events which should result in Ambergris’.
Recent research found 18,000 squid beaks in one stomach, generally the second stomach. It is posited that these are regurgitated by the whale as squid beaks collect only occasionally in the rectum of 1:50 Sperm whales.
All we have at the moment are theoretical reasons for Ambergris production. Clarke posits that some indigestible material leaks into the intestine and by partially blocking the flow of faeces, the tangled mass is pushed into the rectum where there is reason to believe that the water absorbing capacity of the rectum is increased.
In this way, faecal matter is precipitated on the indigestible material to form a smooth concretion (croprolith) and once more the faeces can pass between the boulder of Ambergris and the rectal wall, rather like an annulus. This process can become fatal, leading to intestinal or rectal rupture and the death of the whale.
The croprolith is formed as striations of concentric layers surrounding a central core which is rather more unstructured. There are crystals of magnesium ammonium phosphate indicative of a high protein diet of squid.
What is fascinating from Clark’s research is the passage of time in the formation of Ambergris. That with the demise of the whale it sinks to the ocean floor where the carcass is predated upon, and the freshly expelled black and viscous Ambergris slightly less dense than sea water, rises slowly, ascending the ocean currents. Eventually it reaches the surface, where it floats. It reacts with its surroundings until oxidised by sea water, degraded by sunlight and eroded by wave action. It is bleached as jetsam or remains floating in the oceans gyres for years as flotsam.
Clarke makes the point in his research paper, that the blackish water part poor in Ambereine and other ether soluble constituents has a high mineral rich content, reflecting perhaps the saturation of the outer layers with faecal fluid containing salts excreted from the intestines. The moisture content and specific gravity is much higher in the outer concretion layers than in the inner core such that the boulder ‘would certainly have sunk’.
Flotsam Ambergris is always of fine quality without black material. Clarke suggests that the outer layers are soon abraded away by sea action and the light inner part rises to the surface and floats there. This inner part, of good quality Ambergris lies awash maybe for years, being leached by the sea and bleached by the sun, becoming delicately odourous and of a colour sometimes plaster white before it strands upon some beach or is chanced upon by a fortunate voyager’ – Floating Gold: A natural (and unnatural) history of Ambergris. By Christopher Kemp, 2012. Published by University of Chicago Press, 2012[vi].
Ambergris was introduced to Homoeopathy by Hahnemann in 1827 after a Homoeopathic proving with his friend Count de Gersdorf. It was included in the Materia Medica Pura published in 1811 – 1831 and was one of the 65 fully proven remedies to be included. It is not known or recorded whether Hahnemann’s specimen of Ambergris was obtained from the sea as a natural process of excretion by faeces or regurgitation by the Sperm whale as part of normal physiologic process in a healthy subject or whether indeed found as a morbid product of the Sperm whale of a hunted or otherwise dead specimen. This is an important point which may influence the proving. Whether the specimen of Ambergris is from a male or female Sperm whale may also influence our understanding of the proving.
Ambergris – Amber Grisea the Homoeopathic proving:
Causations: Shock due to business failure; or due to deaths one after another in the family. Effects of domestic shock, business worry. Loss of near relatives. Imaginations.
Modalities: Better slow motion in open air, lying on painful part, cold drinks. Worse music, presence of others, from any unusual thing. Symptoms worse at night. Worse over-lifting, mornings, warmth, warm room, warm milk. Worse embarrassment, agitation, worry. Thinking of problems.
Mind: Bashful state. Embarrassed air. Embarrassed in company. Cannot have others present during urination or stool. As if in a dream. Forgetful. Music aggravates the symptoms. Persons are worn out, yet over – impressionable. Slight or unusual things aggravate the breathing and the heart, starts the menses etc.,
Memory is impaired, comprehension slow. Awakward. Dread of people. Desires to be alone. Dwells upon unpleasant things. Melancholy. Sits for days weeping. Dreamy. Time passes slowly. Thinking difficult in the morning; in old people. Cannot understand what one reads. Intensely shy, blushing easily. Bashful. Music causes weeping and trembling. Cannot do anything in the presence of others. Sad. Despair. Loathing of life. Loss of love of life.
Hearing others talk or talking himself affects him. Aversion to laughter. Fantastic illusions. Imagines diabolic faces, sights.
Restless, excited, very loquacious. Flitting, flighty talker, modern society girls. Jumping from one subject to another, never waiting to have the first question answered.
Affects the nerves, nervousness, twitches and jerks. Faintness. Reflex action is increased. Weakness, coldness, numbness, usually of single parts, fingers, arms, etc., External numbness of the whole body in the morning and weakness. One sided complaints. Symptoms suddenly change places. Numbness and torpor of the whole body especially in the morning. Coldness of the body with twitching. Tearing in the muscles and joints often to one side.
Emaciation. Weakness of upper parts of the body with trembling of the lower part.
Abdomen: Flatulence. Incarcerated flatus. Tension and inflation of the abdomen, principally after eating and drinking. Sensation of coldness in the abdomen. Pressing pain in the epigastrium. Heaviness in the belly. Cutting pains with diarrhoea. Pain in the spleen, as if something were torn off. Flatulent colic in the night. Sweat on abdomen and thighs.
Back: Pressing, drawing pains in neck and back. Heaviness in back with pain in belly, as if intestines were compressed. Shooting pains in the loins. Stiffness in loins after long sitting.
Chest: Oppression felt in the chest and between the scapulae. Sensation of rawness in the chest. Itching in the chest and thyroid.
Ears: Hardness of hearing, with cold sensation in abdomen. Deafness in one ear, roaring and whistling in the other.
Eyes: Stitching in eyelids as if stye were being formed. Eyelids heavy, cannot open them though awake. Spots float before eyes after sewing.
Face: Twitching of facial muscles. Cramps in lips, lips hot. Left cheek red. Flushing of face. Jaundiced colour. Embarrassed look. Tetanus. Lock jaw of new born.
Female: Sexual desire increased. Itching, soreness, swelling pudenda. Menses too early, profuse. Itching of labia. Profuse blu’ish leucorrhoea. Worse at night. Discharge of blood at every little incident. Worse after hard stool, prolonged walking. Lying down aggravates uterine symptoms.
Food: Thirstlessness. Want of appetite.
Head: Pressure on front part of head with mental depression. Tearing pain in upper half of brain. Brain feels loose, falls to side lain on. Softening of the brain. Rush of blood to head, when listening to music. (See modalities).
Heart: Palpitations with pressure in chest as from a lump lodged there or as if the chest were obstructed.
Kidneys: Cannot pass urine in presence of others. Pain in bladder and rectum at the same time. Burning orifice of urethra and anus. Feeling in urethra as if a few or two drops passed out. Burning, smarting and itching in the urethra while urinating. Urine turbid, even during emission, forming a brown sediment. Urinates more than drinks.
Limbs: Cramps in hands and fingers, worse grasping anything. Cramps in legs. Left leg becomes quite blue during menses. Arms, limbs go to sleep easily. Drops what one is carrying. Soreness, rawness between thighs.
Lungs: Asthma of elderly people and of children. Asthma with eructation of gas. Asthma when attempting sex. Wheezing in the chest. Nervous, spasmodic cough with hoarseness and eructation, on waking in the morning. Worse in the presence of people. Hollow, spasmodic, barking cough, coming from deep in the chest, then eructation. Tickling in the throat, larynx, trachea, chest oppressed, gets out of breath when coughing. Choking when hawking up phlegm. Blu’ish white expectoration. Cough worse music, talking, reading aloud, lifting weight. Loss of breath from cough. Cough with emaciation.
Male: Voluptuous excitement of, and itching in genitals. Voluptuous itching of scrotum. Parts externally numb, burn internally. Violent erections without voluptuous sensation. Impotency.
Mouth: Profuse bleeding gums. Offensive breath. Incipid or rancid taste. Sour mouth, worse after milk. Salivation with cough. Small growths under tongue. Ranula.
Nose: Nose bleed, washing face in morning. Nosebleed during menses. Stoppage of nose, mostly at night, must breathe through mouth with chronic coryza.
Rectum: Flatulence, cannot have others present during urination and stool, worse during pregnancy. Contipation during pregnancy and after delivery. Frequent and ineffectual urging for stool. Large flow of blood with stool.
Skin: Itching and soreness, expecially around genitals.
Sleep: Retires tired, wakeful as soon as touches the pillow. Cannot sleep from worry, must get up. Anxious dreams. Coldness of body and twitching of limbs during sleep.
Stomach: Distention stomach and abdomen after midnight. Sensation of coldness in stomach. Belching with violent, convulsive cough. Acid belching like heartburn. Heartburn from drinking milk.
Throat: Sensation as if plug in throat, with difficulty swallowing. Saw, raw from exposure to air, worse motion of tongue.
Vertigo: Vertigo of elderly with weakness in head and stomach.
Materia Medica Sources: Boericke. Clarke. Murphy.
[i] Hermann Melville. Moby Dick, chapter 91.
[ii] CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
[iii] Convention on Migratory Species Secretariat, Bonn, Germany
[v] Spitznagel, Eric. Floating Gold: Treasures of the Deep. Bloomberg Business Week. Jan 12, 2012
[vi] Floating Gold: A natural (and unnatural) history of Ambergris. By Christopher Kemp, 2012. Published by University of Chicago Press, 2012.