Today, we are going to learn all about whale vomit called ambergris and why a massive glob of waxy whale waste has been a hot commodity all over the world for hundreds of years! Ambergris has many common names such as “The Black Pearl, Floating Gold, or The Treasure of the Sea” this is because it’s a highly desired natural marine resource due to its chemical makeup that holds on to scents. However valuable ambergris is, it just may be one of the strangest natural resources because of where it comes from!
Sperm whales are the major producers of large ambergris balls; this is because the sperm whale diet mainly consists of cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish. These cephalopods are member of the Mollusca phylum, which are distinguished by having a soft body, however a few hard parts such as the beak and pen can be found within the squid and cuttlefish. These hard parts are made up of a protein called chitin. The hard parts made up of a chitin protein that is indigestible by the sperm whales. It is believed the hard parts are passed to the digestive track where they bind together forming a large mass. It is unclear if the sperm whale strictly regurgitates or passes the ambergris through its rectum; nevertheless the odor of fresh ambergris is described as a strong fecal smell! After an extended period of time exposed to air and through the process of oxidation the fecal smell of the ambergris fades and becomes more of a musky earthy scent. This is where the irony of the ambergris story unfolds. The masses of floating gold have been used for century’s because of its ability to harness and hold onto scents longer. The way ambergris is utilized is by extracting an odorless alcohol called ambrein that is then used to make perfumes of high quality because of its capability to hold onto scents longer.
You may be asking yourself does this natural resource put the sperm whales at risk for predation by humans? The answer is not any more! Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected internationally making it illegal to collect ambergris directly from the organism. However there is a grey area for collecting ambergris that has washed up into the beaches or floating at sea because according to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) it is a natural waste product from sperm whales making it legal to collect. The good news is science has come a long way so we can still smile and smell fresh. Researches at the University of British Columbia have been able to recreate the ambrein alcohol synthetically in a lab. Technology like this helps protect the marine animals we care for.
The sea hare is one of the most amazing invertebrates you can see in the waters surrounding Catalina Island and here at CIMI. You can find two different species in our coves and our aquariums – the California sea hare and the black sea hare. Sea hares belong to the phylum mollusca, making them relatives of other gastropods like slugs and snails, as well as squids, octopuses, and clams. These marvelous molluscs were named sea hares (Latin: lepus marinus) by the ancient Romans because of their rhinophores, two appendages on the top of the animal’s head that look a lot like rabbit ears. Sea hares also display large wing-like flaps on their backs known as parapoidea, which can sometimes be used for swimming. The California sea hare can grow to be as large as sixteen inches long and five pounds, while the black sea hare is the largest gastropod, sometimes reaching over two feet long and more than thirty pounds!
The sea hare begins its life as one of as many as eighty million eggs, all laid in a large mass that looks a little bit like a bunch of spaghetti. Only twelve days after being laid, the sea hare larvae are ready to hatch. For the first thirty days of its life, a larval sea hare is planktonic. This means that the animal is largely unable to control its movements and floats about on ocean waves and currents. After about thirty days, the sea hare has grown large enough to no longer be planktonic. Over the next three months, the sea hare will double its body weight every ten days! Scientists who study sea hares have found that small juvenile individuals seem to prefer deeper water (up to 60 feet), while adults seem to prefer shallower water. But no matter how deep they live, sea hares will always prefer rocky areas with lots of algae for them to munch on. They especially love red algae, which gives them their dark red to brown (and black) coloring. In the California sea hare, the red algae also make the animals’ ink a purpleish-red color. The California sea hare uses this irritating ink as a defense mechanism against predators. Around Catalina, you can find sea hares enjoying a red algae snack of plocamium or pterocladia.
A California sea hare’s bright red ink – thanks to algae!
After about four months, sea hares reach maturity and are capable of laying eggs of their own. All species are hermaphroditic. This means that each individual is capable of acting as both a male and a female during reproduction. As many as twenty individuals can gather at the same time in order to reproduce in what scientists call mating chains.
The typical lifespan for a sea hare is only about one year, however, cooler water like that surrounding Catalina Island helps to extend the lifespan by delaying the spawning (mating) process.
While most animals found on the sandy bottom areas around CIMI spend most of their time trying to blend in with the sand, the Navanax (Navanax inermis) sticks out like a clown at a camouflage convention. Some head shield slugs like the Navanax and their colorful relatives Nudibranchs have opted out from hiding and instead use colorful displays to send out the message of “yea, I know you can see me, come at me bro…” They spend their time searching the sand for slime trails left by other snails and slugs. Navanax use chemoreceptors on the front of their body to follow these trails of slimy mucous and use their impressive (for a slug) speeds to catch up with, and then devour, their prey.
Navanax will also use this “follow the slime” method to find potential mates. When two of them meet they will first try to eat each other and if that is unsuccessful (usually because they are the exact same size) they will then mate. Scientists have learned a lot about defense mechanisms of other slugs and snails by tracking and recording the eating preferences of the Navanax. Basically, if an eating machine like the Navanax doesn’t want to eat an animal, then that animal is doing something right!
We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!