A hard-up fisherman in Thailand is in line for a windfall of more than $1 million after finding a rare piece of expensive “whale vomit” on a beach.
Narong Phetcharaj was returning to shore when he saw a strange object in the surf at Niyom beach in southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province.
He found a large lump of a waxy mass called ambergris, which is French for grey amber.
The substance, which is regurgitated by sperm whales, can be sold for up to $40,000 a kilogram.
Mr Phetcharaj found a piece weighing about 30kg, which could be worth up to $1.2 million
The fisherman took the mass to experts at the Prince of Songkla University, who identified it as ambergris.
The substance is produced by sperm whales, which eat large quantities of cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish and usually vomit out indigestible elements such as the beaks and pens.
Sometimes, these parts move into the whale's intestines and bind together, slowly becoming a solid mass which grows inside the huge mammal over many years.
The whale then vomits out the mass, which solidifies and floats on the surface of the ocean. It has a foul smell at first but after drying out, it develops a sweet and long-lasting fragrance, making it a sought-after ingredient in the perfume industry.
"None of the villagers has ever seen or touched a real whale ambergris before and that’s why everybody was happy," Mr Phetcharaj said.
"I'm so excited; I don’t know what to do. I plan to sell the ambergris as I’ve already received a certificate to prove that it's real.
"If I can get a good price, I'll retire from working as a fisherman and throw a party for my friends."
The mystery of ambergris
The substance has been called the treasure of the sea and referred to as floating gold.
Its origin remained a mystery for years, with theories suggested it was hardened sea foam or the droppings of large birds.
However, it was not until large-scale whaling began in the 1800s that the discovered was made that the sperm whale was the material’s only producer.
Conflicting opinions still exist as to how ambergris emerges from the whale. Many believe that the whale regurgitates the mass – which is where the substance gets its nickname “whale vomit”. Some believe the whale pass the mass along with faecal matter, whereas others say the obstruction grows so large it eventually fatally ruptures the animal.