How To Identify Ambergris (8 Tips For Beginners)

Ambergris is one of the world’s strangest coveted substances found in nature.

It goes by many names — amber grease, gray amber, floating gold or even “treasure of the sea” — and is highly sought-after around the world for certain medicines, food additives, potions, and high-quality perfumes.

However, this mysterious substance can be tough to identify, and its legality also varies from country to country due to its origins from whales.

Read on to learn more about ambergris and how to tell if you’ve found some.

How To Identify Ambergris (EXPLAINED)

What is Ambergris?

Ambergris is a unique animal secretion that comes entirely from sperm whales. 

The substance is a byproduct of the whales’ diet, which consists largely of cephalopods like squid and cuttlefish.

While the indigestible parts of these creatures is usually regurgitated directly by the sperm whales, they sometimes move on instead to the whales’ intestines and bind together in a dense substance.

When passed, it is bound in a waxy, softly sticky substance (hypothesized to protect the whales from sharp cephalopod parts like beaks), which dries into what we know as ambergris.

Its relatively random, rare occurrence in the natural world is a big part of what makes it so valuable.

Typically found washed up on shores, the ambergris discovered by humans is a waxy, solid substance that often appears rock-like. 

Ambergris is also highly flammable, but there are fortunately a number of other ways to identify it rather than lighting it up.

Tips for Identifying Ambergris

Is that strange “rock” you found at the beach worth a lot of money?

There are multiple ways to identify ambergris, and in fact it’s best to use more than one method.

Telling if something is ambergris for sure can be challenging because it varies a lot in quality, but it is nevertheless highly sought after by people in the perfume industry and collectors. 

Here are some tips anyone can use to tell if a recent discovery is ambergris or not. 

1. Look at where the item was recovered.

Ambergris can’t be found just anywhere.

It is usually found on or near shorelines, though it is also occasionally discovered floating in oceans.

When dead sperm whales wash ashore, it may also be found inside them.

If your specimen cannot be traced back to one of these places, it is possible that it is something else other than ambergris.

However, this should not be relied upon alone because it may have also been moved multiple times by animals or humans. 

2. Does it look like ambergris?

Ambergris can actually vary quite a bit in color, due both to the amount of cephalopod parts that may be within as well as where and how long it has sat before being picked up.

In many cases, ambergris can float in the ocean or sit on a beach for years before being picked up.

Most ambergris is brown or grayish when discovered, though it can range from jet black and dark brown to even an off-white or cream-like tone. 

3. Does it smell like ambergris?

The smell of ambergris depends on a number of factors, from how recent it was secreted by the whale to where it sat before being picked up.

But if you smell it closely, it almost always has a musky scent.

If it is a more recent secretion, of course, the ambergris will have more of a fecal note.

If it has been floating in the sea, it may smell briny like the ocean.

Some say that ambergris also has a subtly sweet, earthy scent.

4. Check the feel.

If it’s been sitting out in the open air for a while, ambergris may feel hard and rock-like at first.

But if you rub your hands against it gently, it should feel waxy or even slightly greasy.

This will be more apparent if the ambergris is a recent secretion and/or has been floating in the ocean up until it is found.

If a portion is broken, the inside may have a grainy feel. If it is completely hard, it may in fact be just a rock instead of ambergris.

Going along with feel, the piece of ambergris you have should feel lighter than expected when picking it up.

It may look like a dense rock, but if you’re surprised by its lightness (and it meets other identifying factors), there’s a decent chance that it’s actually ambergris.

You may want to pick up a similarly sized stone for comparison.

5. Break off a small piece.

Another way to identify ambergris is to look at the inside, which should appear layered and slightly grainy.

There may also be hardened fragments or even whole pieces of cephalopod parts like beaks. 

But before you go diving in and taking a look for yourself, it’s important to note that any cutting or breakages in an ambergris discovery will likely depreciate its value if you are looking to sell.

6. Does it float?

If you put the specimen in water, it should float rather than sink like a rock. 

Interestingly, the longer ambergris has been out of the whale, the more it “cures” and becomes more buoyant.

Some ambergris may also float more readily than others if it contains fewer cephalopod pods or has more air trapped within. 

7. Taste it.

Another way to identify ambergris is by giving it a small taste, which would reveal a woody, earthy flavor.

It may also be somewhat salty after floating in the ocean. 

Some also describe ambergris as having a sweetness to it. 

Ambergris is sometimes used in food, but it can be very potent and is not used in large quantities at once (of course, part of this is due to the fact that it is so expensive). 

8. Have it professionally examined.

Still not sure if what you have is ambergris?

One surefire way to tell is to have it professionally examined in a lab or by a collector.

They can check the chemical makeup in addition to crossing off the visual and touch factors. 

Ultimately, having it professionally checked out is the only way to determine not only if what you have is in fact ambergris, but also how much it is worth.

When you find what you think may be ambergris, it can be very exciting.

However, it’s important to take the time to examine it carefully and not jump to any conclusions.

Last but not least, always check your local laws before you try to sell ambergris to make sure you’re not doing anything that could land you in a legal hot spot. 

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how to identify ambergris