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Humpback whale underwater

Climate giants – how whales can help save the world

We know that whales, dolphins and porpoises are amazing beings with complex social and family...
Black Sea common dolphins © Elena Gladilina

The dolphin and porpoise casualties of the war in Ukraine

Rare, threatened subspecies of dolphins and porpoises live in the Black Sea along Ukraine's coast....
WDC's Ed Fox, Chris Butler-Stroud and Carla Boreham take a message from the ocean to parliament

Taking a message from the ocean to parliament

It's a sad fact that whales and dolphins don't vote in human elections, but I...
Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

The whale trappers are back with their cruel experiment

Anyone walking past my window might have heard my groan of disbelief at the news...
Boto © Fernando Trujillo

Meet the legendary pink river dolphins

Botos don't look or live like other dolphins. Flamingo-pink all over with super-skinny snouts and...
Tokitae in captivity

Talking to TUI – will they stop supporting whale and dolphin captivity?

Last Thursday I travelled to Berlin for a long-anticipated meeting with TUI senior executives. I...

Earth Day Q&A with Waipapa Bay Wines’ marketing director, Fran Draper

We've been partnered with Waipapa Bay Wines since 2019 so for this year's Earth Day,...
Orcas at the seabed

The secrets of orca beach life

Rubbing on smooth pebbles is a generations-old cultural tradition for a particular group of orcas...

Chapter 92: Ambergris

Today’s Moby Dick chapter is Chapter 92: Ambergris – read by Michael Bracewell. Our Executive Director explains how WDC is working to make the harvesting of whales for products like ambergirs and spermaceti oil a thing of the past.

Ambergris is secreted in the intestines of the sperm whale and while it is usually passed in the fecal matter, it can sometimes be found in the abdomens of whales. 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 obtained from whale vomit. It can be found floating upon the sea, or more often found on the seashore in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from 15 g to 110 pounds or more.

When initially expelled by, or removed from the whale, the fatty precursor of ambergris is pale white in color (sometimes streaked with black), soft, with a strong fecal smell. Following months to years of photo-degradation and oxidation in the ocean, this gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color with a crusty and waxy texture, and has a peculiar odor.

Historically, ambergris was well known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. However, today its use is illegal in many countries and synthetic alternatives are now increasingly being developed. In fact, sustainable alternatives are available for all of the products we used to harvest whale for. Another great example is spermaceti oil, which demand for is still a serious threat to whales.

Spermaceti oil, an amber fluid produced by the tonne in the head cavity of a sperm whale (or isolated from whale oil by refining) is not technically oil at all, but mostly wax esters with a smaller fraction of triglycerides. It hardens on contact with air to provide a firm wax. Spermaceti was originally a source of candle wax and became a staple of the cosmetic industry in the early 20th century due to its similarity to human skin sebum. It also became a core ingredient in industrial lubricants (including in space exploration technology).

The sperm whale paid a heavy price for its utility to man. In just twenty-five years between 1951, when Japan joined the International Whaling Commission, until 1976, Japan and the Soviet Union killed over 220,000 sperm whales. In the 1980s, the cosmetics industry began using alternatives to spermaceti, most notably jojoba oil, also not technically an oil, but a liquid wax that is very similar in structure to spermaceti. Jojoba oil is pressed from the seeds of the desert shrub jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis). Today, over 5,000 tonnes of jojoba oil are used annually in personal care products.

WDC is concerned that, despite the use of jojoba and synthetic substitutes, unscrupulous or unwitting manufacturers of topical preparations may still be using spermaceti as an ingredient, whether sourced from ongoing hunts in Japan and Indonesia, stockpiles or extracted from whale oil. Using simple internet searches, WDC initial investigations identified more than 20 cosmetic or personal care products that claimed to contain spermaceti. Several are apparently available in the USA and European Union although their import would violate CITES.

WDC is now working with the International Jojoba Export Council  (IJEC) in highlighting the treat that Spermaceti poses to the protection of whales.

WDC joined with IJEC to successfully oppose a tariff on imports of jojoba esters into the EU, the hub of the cosmetics industry. The tariff would have made it more economic to start using spermaceti when sustainable alternatives are available.

We shall be continuing to investigate this area of growing threat and campaigning to shut down any loopholes that mean that whales could be threatened.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.