However the eventual release of the mound of material occurs, the ambergris reaches the sea, eventually washing up ashore, and whether as big lumps or small pieces would easily go unnoticed were it not for the distinctive, unique odour.
Not widely known is that Sperm whales have the largest of all heads in the animal kingdom - some 20 ft long, and roughly one-third of the entire length of the creature. Not only that but this whale species are also the deepest divers in the mammalian world, going down 10,000 feet hunting prey, at pressures that would crush human beings instantly.
Most unexpected fact that makes this species unique however, is that the faeces they produce - some of them anyway, who may well expire in the process - is an incredibly valuable resource as far as humans are concerned. This amazing stuff is called ambergris - resulting from sperm whale digestive systems trying to get rid of those bits of the squid prey that are indigestible.
The beaks of the squids, undigested, pass through the intestines. In some unlucky creatures, one in a hundred, these congeal into an expanding mass of fecal matter - large and immovable - often acting as a rectal dam, until either painfully expelled or proving fatal to the poor whale involved.
However the eventual release of the mound of material occurs, the ambergris reaches the sea, eventually washing up ashore, and whether as big lumps or small pieces would easily go unnoticed were it not for the distinctive, unique odour - said to be reminiscent of things as diverse as fine tobacco, fresh seaweed, cow dung, Brazil nuts, or newly-mowed hay.
To the initiated, the hard-to-define scent is what makes ambergris - Moby Dick character Herman Melville described it as being worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist - among the most highly sought-after component of perfumes. Despite decades of the best efforts of chemists, Ambergris has never been artificially replicated.
This magical substance gets sold - by the gram, as pebble-size tiny pieces - to independent perfumiers, and in bulk only to those with serious wealth. Peddled in dusty herbalist markets in Morocco and Cairo as an aphrodisiac to be stirred into cups of sweet tea, used as incense in religious ceremonies.
Chinese people use it as food and medicine, as well as a component in fragrances, or an adornment, for Ambergris is seen there as not only a sign of wealth, but also a celebration of the great dark unseen ocean mysteries. These days, when sperm whales are no longer slaughtered for commercial gain, Ambergris, once plentiful, only comes from those pieces that wash ashore, found by keen-eyed, sharp nosed beachcombers, eager to tap into an increasingly desperate market, as supplies begin to dwindle. This is one case in which mammal crap is worth at least its weight in gold, if not more.