First Responders

$1 Million in ‘Floating Gold’: Inside the Black Market Whale Poop Trade

October 29, 2021Noelle Wiehe

The sperm whale has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. This means that the sperm whale is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

An Indian sting Saturday, Oct. 23, that netted two suspected smugglers and $1 million worth of ambergris — whale poop — shines a spotlight on the role criminal gangs play in the global “floating gold” trade.

The 8 kilograms of ambergris nabbed by wildlife officers in Tamil Nadu follows a string of six summer whale-waste seizures in the Indian cities of Mumbai and Thane. Combined, the busts reveal an international underground movement of a substance banned in the US to protect endangered whales but coveted by perfume manufacturers as a scent fixative.

Trafficking in the whale feces, also sometimes mistakenly called whale vomit, is illegal here and in India, but it remains largely unregulated in Europe, home to many of the world’s largest scent syndicates.

Critics kvetch that the long arm of justice seems to scoop up a lot of low-level poop-peddling perps and not many of the end users who are willing to spend more than $125 per gram of ambergris. That’s roughly equal to the US street price of cocaine.

“If you can shut down the sellers, you don’t need to worry about the buyers,” Kathryn Kullberg, director of Marine and Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society of the US, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “There needs to be a crackdown on supply and demand.”

million dollar whale poop
Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales and have one of the widest global distributions of any marine mammal species. They are found in all deep oceans, from the equator to the edge of the pack ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Ambergris is nicknamed “floating gold” not only because of the high prices it commands but also because of how it’s often found by fishers — bobbing on the ocean.

Ambergris production is a long and ultimately lucrative journey that takes many years, but it begins in one of the four belly chambers of a sperm whale. The largest of the toothed sea mammals, sperm whales consume vast quantities of Humboldt squid.

These squid are, for the most part, squishy creatures, but the beaks they use to murder their spiny fish prey are some of the hardest tools in the animal kingdom. 

The problem, you see, is that a sperm whale’s rectum isn’t designed to poop guillotine-sharp squid cleavers. They’re built to sluice slushy squid stuff.

Most sperm whales get around that by vomiting the beaks up instead of digesting them, but sometimes the squids’ nibs go down the hatch. Scientists suspect whales have evolved a gooey bile that coats the beaks as they move through the guts, protecting the intestines.

ambergris Humboldt squid
Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas). Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Unfortunately, the beaks begin to build up near the whale’s bum, forming a BM boulder that eventually blows out of the rectum. This potentially fatal feculence afflicts perhaps as few as one out of every 100 sperm whales, but scientists aren’t sure.

What they can say is that ambergris is very rare. Marinated in the sea and sculpted into a briny and hardened orb, it’s the sort of poopy prize that makes the finder rich.

Except that you can’t easily trade it in the US or India. Here, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bans the collecting, storage, or selling of ambergris because it came from an endangered species.

“Iconic species face the threat of extinction due to the demand for their parts and products,” Kullberg said. “At the state level, we work to protect threatened and endangered animals by passing legislation to restrict the parts and sale of parts of imperiled species and ensure residents don’t contribute to the illegal wildlife trade.”

million dollar sperm whale poop
A sperm whale shows its flukes. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Alaska Fisheries Science Center photo by Kim Shelden.

Sperm whales are in the headlines today, but the Humane Society believes the US and other nations can combat the poaching and trafficking of other rare species here and abroad by clamping down on their commercial uses.

Kullberg is urging immediate action to protect the pangolin, a mammal valued by the traditional Asian medicine trade for its scales. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than 1 million pangolins have been trafficked over the past decade, with nearly 195,000 butchered in 2019 alone.

Kullberg also works to ban the sale of shark fins, which often become ingredients in soup. She told Coffee or Die that unscrupulous fishing crews would hack off sharks’ fins and toss the carcasses back into the water, leaving the sharks defenseless. 

“That’s because the fins are worth so much more than the shark meat,” Kullberg said. “Fin soup is something that we do not need to eat.” 

sperm whale ivory
Tim Davis of Ridgefield, Clark County, Washington, pleaded guilty April 21, 2017, in US District Court in Tacoma to violating the Lacey Act by trafficking in sperm whale ivory. The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibit unlawful purchases and sales of these products. Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A recent study revealed that global shark and ray populations have plummeted by 71% over the past five decades.

A bipartisan bill designed to take a bite out of the trade — the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act — is pending on Capitol Hill.

Spearheaded by Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the legislation promises to slow the harvest of sharks, which are being killed 30% faster than they can reproduce.

Read Next: A Package Deal: Meth Peanuts, Box Turtles, Parasitic Wasps, and King Cobras

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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