Why Is Whale Vomit Expensive
Whale vomit smells like rotting flesh and death — but, actually, it’s a very expensive ingredient. The reason for this is its use in the perfume market, especially to create fragrances like musk. It is believed to be in high demand in countries like Dubai that have a large perfume market. Ancient Egyptians used it as incense. It is also believed to be used in some traditional medicines.
When whales die of natural causes or are caught by whalers, their stomachs fill up with bile, which contains fish oil. When the whale carcass eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, the bile flows out through an opening in the esophagus called the “gastric fistula.” This process creates what is known as whale vomit. After the whale dies, the bile becomes rancid and stinks of decay. In fact, whale vomit has a smell so strong that humans can’t stand it, and they often need protective gear such as face masks when exposed to it. That’s why it’s referred to as “whale feces” or even “poop.”
But if you’re wondering how any of this could make a good scent, keep reading. First, let’s talk about all those chemicals. Bile is made primarily from cholesterol, which means it’s filled with fatty acids. And while most fats go bad quickly because they contain too many double bonds between carbon atoms (which makes them unstable), the fatty acids in whale bile aren’t like other fats; they don’t have these double bonds. So whale fat stays fresh longer than regular animal fats. Since it’s odorless, people didn’t realize this until 1835, when chemist Robert Hare discovered the long-lasting properties of whale oil during research on the effects of light on candles.
It was around this time that scientists first learned that whale oil had antibacterial properties. They soon realized that this quality would allow them to make candles that wouldn’t burn down houses. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that chemists figured out how to get whale oil into a form suitable for candle making. One way was to heat it in a vacuum to remove the water and then add glycerin to dry it further. Another method involved dissolving the dried liquid in alcohol. Today, this final product is called paraffin wax.
Paraffin wax isn’t just used for creating candles anymore. It’s also part of everyday life. For example, it’s found in cosmetics, lipsticks, soap bars and moisturizers. Of course, it doesn’t stay pure forever. As with your skin, exposure to sunlight will cause deterioration over time. Sunlight reacts with the oxygen in air to produce free radicals, molecules that attack cells in the body. These free radicals damage DNA and lead to cancer and other diseases. Paraffin wax protects against free radical damage by slowing down the speed at which oxygen interacts with it.
Now that we know what goes into whale vomit, let’s see how it comes alive to become a fragrance. On the next page, we’ll learn where it gets its name.
Whale Ejector Lamps
Whales’ digestive systems release gastric juice into their mouths, along with partially digested food particles and undigested bacteria. Because of this, the inside of a whale’s mouth is covered with mucus that looks similar to snot. A whale’s tongue is also coated with thick mucus that helps the mammal capture tiny prey. Scientists believe that these substances may help protect whales from harmful pathogens that swim near their gums.
In addition to protecting the whale’s teeth, the thick mucus coating the walls of the throat keeps seawater from entering the lungs. In this way, it prevents the whale’s respiratory system from becoming overwhelmed by saltwater. Instead, it lets nitrogen gas created by the chemical reaction between the blood in the tissues and the saltwater enter the bloodstream. Once there, the nitrogen combines with oxygen to form nitrates, which provide energy for the muscles and the rest of the body. Without the thick layer of mucus, the amount of nitrates available would decrease, resulting in muscle weakness.
So instead of just being waste, whale vomit may actually serve a vital function. Whether this is true or not remains to be proven, however. More likely, the thick coat of mucus acts as protection from predators who want to eat the whale. It also provides a barrier from microorganisms that try to break down the whale’s flesh.
Whale vomit has been used since ancient times to manufacture perfumes. During World War II, when supplies of synthetic materials were limited, chemists began looking for alternatives. They experimented with different oils extracted from plants, animals and minerals. Eventually, one group isolated a substance called cephalic secretions. This is what gave the substance its name: Cephalis Excoriation Ointment was developed in 1946 by Charles R. Crane, Jr., and his wife, Edith Crane, after he accidentally spilled some whale vomit on himself. Mr. Crane thought the smell reminded him of shaving cream.
On the next page, we’ll find out more about exactly what happens during the production of cephalic secretion.
How Whaling Works
As mentioned earlier, whales die naturally from disease or are killed by whalers. Whaling is illegal almost everywhere except Antarctica, but it still occurs today. Between 1982 and 1986 alone, the United States Navy killed nearly 50,000 sperm whales in 200 separate incidents. Sperm whales are particularly susceptible to getting hooked and dragged underwater due to their weak necks and poor swimming skills.
Once dead, the bodies of most whales sink to the bottom of the sea. However, humpback whales live deep below the surface, sometimes reaching depths of 1,000 feet (304 meters) or more. To reach these areas, the whales flap their fins to generate powerful currents of bubbles, allowing them to float upward toward the top of the ocean. Sometimes, they travel hundreds of miles without surfacing. If the whales’ corpses happen to drift above the depth they normally occupy, the whales’ internal organs will begin to decompose. Under normal circumstances, the gases produced by this process would escape through the whale’s gills, but when submerged, the whale’s head rises higher than its tail, blocking off the exit routes. So the decomposition takes place in the whale’s intestinal tract, producing hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen sulfide produces a foul smell, ammonia gives off a sharp pungent odor, and both produce toxic fumes.
These gases build up in the intestines and gradually work their way out through the anus. At least part of the effluent passes out through the same hole that excreted the whale vomit before it sank to the seafloor. Most of the gases combine to form hydrogen sulfide, which accounts for the characteristic rotten egg smell of whale vomit. Finally, the remaining fluid drips out of the whale’s nose, forming yet another kind of mixture containing carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane and water vapor. This combination results in the distinctive flatulent sound that whales make while feeding.
If you’ve ever smelled a freshly vomited whale, you might think that the substance is slimy and sticky. While it does retain a slimy texture, it’s really only on the outside. Once removed from the whale, the substance turns into thin waxy jelly that hardens within minutes. Chemically speaking, it’s mostly composed of waxes, proteins, sugars and nucleic acids. Some of these ingredients come from the liver and kidneys, while others are derived from keratin, the main protein in hair and horns. All together, the stuff is a colloid, meaning that it consists of small solid particles suspended in a liquid medium.
Despite the fact that it costs several hundred dollars per pound, whale vomit has continued to be popular among perfume manufacturers. Perhaps it’s the unique nature of the compound, or perhaps it’s just the fact that no other material compares to it in terms of strength and persistence. Whatever the reason, it seems that whale vomit will remain a staple in the world of scent.
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