Ambergris occurs as a biliary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale, and can be found floating upon the sea, or in the sand near the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because giant squids' beaks have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the whale's intestine produces the substance as a means of easing the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have inadvertently eaten.
Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter. Ambergris that forms a mass too large to exit via the anus is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit.
Ambergris can be found in the Atlantic Ocean; on the coasts of Brazil and Madagascar; and on the coast of Africa, of the East Indies, The Maldives, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Molucca islands. Most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahama Islands and Providence Island in the Caribbean.
Ambergris is found in lumps of various shapes and sizes, weighing from 15 g (½ oz) to 50 kg (100 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 precursor gradually hardens, developing a dark gray or black color, a crusty and waxy texture, and a peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic. Its smell has been generally described as a vastly richer and smoother version of isopropanol without its stinging harshness.
In this developed condition, ambergris has a specific gravity ranging from 0.780 to 0.926. It melts at about 62 °C to a fatty, yellow resinous liquid; and at 100 °C (212 °F) it is volatilized into a white vapor. It is soluble in ether, and in volatile and fixed oils.
Ambergris is relatively nonreactive to acid. White crystals of a substance called ambrein can be separated from ambergris by heating raw ambergris in alcohol, then allowing the resulting solution to cool.
Historically, the primary commercial use of ambergris was in fragrance chemistry, although it has also been used for medicinal and flavoring purposes. Ambergris has historically been an important perfume odorant and is highly sought. However, it is difficult to get a consistent and reliable supply of high quality ambergris. Due to demand for ambergris and its high price, replacement compounds have been sought out by the fragrance industry and chemically synthesized. The most important of these are ambroxan, ambrox and its stereoisomers, which has largely taken its place and is the most widely used ambergris-replacement odorant in perfume manufacturing. The oldest and most commercially significant synthesis of ambrox is from sclareol (primarily extracted from clary sage), although syntheses have been devised from a variety of other natural products, including cis-abienol and thujone. Procedures for the microbial production of ambrox have also been devised.
As of 2006, raw ambergris fetched approximately US$10 per gram, with much higher prices possible for particularly high-quality samples. In the United States, importing, buying, or selling ambergris — including ambergris that had washed ashore — was considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In 2001 this ruling was overturned, and ambergris was deemed not to be a byproduct of the whaling industry, since the whale expels this substance naturally.
Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. While perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world, American perfumers usually avoid it due to legal ambiguities. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. The ancient Chinese called the substance "dragon's spittle fragrance.". During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague.
This substance has also been used historically as a flavouring for food, and some people consider it an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.