Sperm whales are known and have been hunted for their production of ambergris, a substance of great value that has historically been used notably in the perfume industry. It is estimated that ambergris is produced in the digestive system of just 1% of all sperm whales.

The sperm whale’s diet is mainly composed of squid, invertebrates with a sharp, horny beak. Given that these beaks are not digestible, they will normally accumulate in the stomach before being regurgitated by the whale.

However, due to a pathology in the digestive system of some sperm whales, squid beaks could end up in their intestines and irritate the walls thereof. Sperm whales seem to have the ability to secrete a high-cholesterol substance that allows them to group together and coat these beaks. Accumulating in the intestine, the secretion-coated beaks likely end up forming aggregates that are either eliminated with feces or continue to build up and potentially block the intestine or even the anus. In such cases, the mass of ambergris could cost the sperm whale its life.

Learn more

  • (2002) Rice, D. W. Ambergris. (États-Unis). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals: 20-21.
Whale Q&A - 5/7/2019

Jeanne Picher-Labrie

Jeanne Picher-Labrie joined the Whales Online team in 2019 as a writing intern. She is studying for her Bachelor’s in biology and has always been enthralled by nature. Every day she learns a little more about the marine mammals of the St. Lawrence and aims to share her fascination through popular science.

Recommended articles

Can we rid whales of their pollution?

Pollution can accumulate in whales' bodies and cause them serious health problems. “Can we flush this pollution out of a…

|Whale Q&A 18/6/2020

My dream is to swim with dolphins or whales. What would be the impact of such an activity?

In many places around the globe, ecotourism organizations offer the opportunity to swim with marine mammals. Whether we’re talking about…

|Whale Q&A 3/6/2020

Do different killer whale ecotypes communicate in the same way?

Following our article on the various killer whale ecotypes, one reader asked whether killer whales of different ecotypes are able…

|Whale Q&A 26/5/2020