Many aspects of ambergris remain a mystery. Why is ambergris more commonly found in the southern hemisphere, though sperm whales range all the world's seas? Why is it only sperm whales—and particularly male sperm whales—that create it? How did ancient Middle Easterners decide to start using it for medicine, or decide that "eau de whale" would be a compelling fragrance?
Some, but not all, scent qualities of ambergris have been synthesized, so the original remains valuable. With sperm whale numbers down from the 1.1 million estimated prior to whaling to approximately 350,000 today, less ambergris floats on the seas. Still, Whitehead says the population is slowly recovering, and even though most findings turn out to be rocks or wax or other ocean detritus, beachcombers and fishermen continue to scour the sands and waves in hope of stumbling across a weathered chunk of this sea gold.