domingo, 10 de enero de 2016

The Deep Essence

Changing their appearance to look better or at least different to the rest has been an obsession to for human beings since ancient times. Even our most primitive ancestors used chemical products to modify the colour of their skin and hair or their bodily smell.
Perfume container from Rome, by Dennis Jarvis
In fact, perfumes are not only one of the first cosmetics produced by primitive humans, but also one of the most common, produced and sold nowadays. Classically perfumes are made up of three different groups of fragrant substances according to the duration of their smell, called low, medium and high notes.

High notes are fleeting essences, usually derived from flowers or other odorous parts of plants. Medium notes are slightly more lasting than high notes and also come from plants. Finally, low notes are the most persistent ones, are the responsible for the central smell of the perfume, that one that is present for hours. Low notes are mainly obtained from animal fluids, such us some sexual glands.

One special product used to obtain low notes is distilled from an strange material that sometimes appears in on the coast of Nordic countries. It is a spherical grey greasy structure called ambergris. The origin of this substance was a mystery for centuries.
Ambergris, by Peter Kaminski
To discover its precedence we must travel to the deep cold parts of the Atlantic Ocean. It is not easy to assume that three quarters parts of our planet surface is covered by several kilometres of water, and we know much better the characteristics further places such as the Moon or Mars’ surface than this profound zone of our own planet.

Hidden in that obscure world lives one of the most mythological animals, the giant squid, that is the largest known invertebrate and one of the five largest animals in general. It is so strange that nobody achieved recording a live giant squid until 21st century and we were only able to meet them when they died in superficial zones and their corpses were carried by oceanic current to the coast. Something quite infrequent.
Giant Squid (1920 Source: Bright, M. 1989)
The main predator of this legendary animal is the sperm whale. This cetaceous is capable of diving to the deepest part of the ocean to hunt giant squid. It is not, however, an easy task. We must realise that in abyssal zones there is not light, so the preys must be located by echolocation. Some parts of the squid, besides, are not digested easily. Although the animal is covered by a soft muscular mantle, in its interior it has a cartilaginous skeleton (that lots of us have tasted when we eat roasted squids). And its powerful beak is also extremely hard.

When a sperm whale eats a giant squid, all these hard remains can not be digested properly, so they build up in the intestine of the animal. Afterwards they are compacted, forming spherical structures. These spheres grow slowly in the guts of the animal and, when they are large enough, the whale vomits them.
Sperm whales, by Gabriel Barathieu
And, yes, sometimes they arrive floating at the coast and they are that substance that we call ambergris.

What a wonderful world we live in, a place where an strange substance used to produce perfumes by humans is the remains of a giant animal after being digested by the intestine of the largest carnivore on the planet, and has traveled from the deepest part of the sea to a little glass bottle in a wardrobe of our bathroom.

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