Ishmael notes that ambergris, a substance prized for its fragrance and used in perfumes the world over, is in fact derived “from the bowels of a sick whale.” Ishmael wonders if some parts of polite society would be shocked to know this, but he states that it makes sense to find something so “incorrupt” as this ambergris inside the body of a decaying animal—this, after all, is the way of life, and is also noted by Paul in the New Testament—that faith might be found in the wounded or lamed body of a faithful person. Ishmael also notes that, although it is a prevalent rumor, it is not in fact true that whales smell under most circumstances. Indeed, Ishmael counters that whales are mostly odorless, as is their oil—and this derives from the overall health of the whale, who spends its time swimming through the water, getting exercise, and bathing itself in the salt seas.
Ambergris is, quite simply, a crystalized version of the whale’s sperm oil, but this crystal form has a particularly strong smell, and was considered one of the great aromatic spices in the world. In the 19th century, these “spices” were of especial importance, since so much of life revolved around the covering-up of foul odors and bad smells—the result of urban living as cities grew rapidly, and as plumbing lagged behind the development of those cities. The ambergris harvested from this “sick” whale can be sold for a high price on the open market. Ishmael, of course, always interpreting, also sees moral and religious lessons in ambergris.