Whether via the volition of the whale itself or as a result of scavengers ripping open the innards of the deceased cetacean, the mound of ambergris reaches the ocean. There, writes Christopher Kemp in Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris, it may tarry for weeks, months, years or even decades until, perhaps, eventually it finds its way ashore, either as one weathered lump or as an abundance of smaller pieces.
Particularly in the latter case, it may pass unnoticed visually among the debris, natural and artificial, that the tide has carried to land. What makes it stand out, however, is its smell. Kemp quotes writers and observers who variously compare the unique odor of ambergris to fine tobacco, the wood in old churches, sandalwood, fresh earth, fresh seaweed, cow dung, Brazil nuts, newly-mowed hay, and the "faintest possible perfume of the violet."
It is that unique and hard-to-define smell that makes ambergris, as Herman Melville in "Moby Dick" described it, "worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist." For it is, among other things, a highly sought-after – and, despite the best efforts of chemists, not perfectly replicable – component of perfumes. Writes Kemp: