Sep
26
2008

Precious ambergris, giant squid, and New Zealand’s lovely lardy lumps.

Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.
Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.Courtesy sarae
Oh, Fergie, you’ve ruined my life. And music.

Anyway, New Zealand seems to be a little grosser these days. Several huge, greasy “lumps” have been found on the shores of the North Island in the last week, leaving locals confused, disgusted, and hopeful that a fortune in whale puke is right around the corner. (This may be the default feeling for kiwis, but I don’t follow the news there enough to say for sure.)

The 1000-pound lumps are whitish, lard-like, and a little smelly. The dogs of the beachcombers who first discovered the objects were reportedly reluctant to touch or eat the material, which is a strange thing for a dog that has found something on the beach.

Locals were quick to assume that the lumps could be precious ambergris, highly valuable whale vomit used in cosmetics, and were seen hacking chunks off of the mystery blobs. Their retirements, they reckoned, would be full of featherbeds and yams. (Again, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what New Zealanders are into.)

Ambergris’ name comes from the French for “grey amber” (as opposed to “brown amber,” fossilized tree sap), and is in fact, for those of you behind on your cetology, sperm whale puke. Sperm whales, like the rest of us, love to puke. And it’s important that your average sperm whale gets a good puke in now and again to eject any sand or stones they might have taken in over the course of… you know, I don’t really understand sperm whales any more than New Zealanders. But somehow they get grit in them, and they regularly and easily hurl it out. It seems, however, that some materials, like the beaks of cuttlefish and squid, are particularly irritating to whale guts, and something different happens—a special puke. It’s not known if the ambrein (the fragrant main ingredient in ambergris) comes from the beaks themselves, or if the chemical comes from the whale’s digestive process acting on the offending materials, but eventually a big ball of pasty goo is formed inside the whale, ready to be puked out. The ambergris initially smells pretty foul, but after floating around for a while, and being hardened and broken down by sunlight, it becomes a very complex and valuable material. Depending on the quality, it can fetch up to $15,000 per kg from perfume makers, to be used as a high-quality fixative.

Giant squids come in, I like to think, as an appropriate source for this bizarre, valuable material. Sperm whales are, after all, the prime predators of the giant squid, and giant squid have awfully big, gut-irritating beaks. It’s a link I like to make.

Anyhow, a lot of New Zealanders were set on making their fortune with this so-called whale puke. Ambergris, however, is said to burn with a blue flame when lit, and give off a pleasant aroma. When the mystery material was subjected to this test “it just melted and really stank.” Ooh. Ouch.

After this revelation, guesses on the material compositions were downgraded from ambergris to lard or cheese—“possibly brie.” The lumps are, it should be noted, about the size and shape of 44-gallon drums, which should have been a tip-off. But whatever.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

When I first read the article referenced, by the way, I got excited that there might be more "globsters" turning up in New Zealand. But no. And that's another story entirely.

posted on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 2:29pm
Jean's picture
Jean says:

I am not satisfied with the definition of the word "globsters". It sounds like a really broad term for some massive cover up. How can you pass off a carcass that is unidentifiable as simply a "globster"? That's like calling the chupacabra a... coyote.

posted on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 4:52pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Jean! You're only here to cause trouble! You know that I'm sick and don't have the energy to deal with this!

And I don't know that "globster" is a broad term—it applies to a very specific type of... globby thing. Not any old sea carcass. Check it out!

posted on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 5:26pm
curious's picture
curious says:

I'm confused. So does anybody know what these globs really are? Has anyone studied/tested and announced what they are in actuality? Why they were found by the sea shore. the article didn't make that very clear.

posted on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 5:05pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Hey Curious—
Honestly, I don't think that anybody cares enough to do much testing on them. They're probably just some industrial product (or brie cheese) that fell off a ship—or something like that. But that's why they washed up on the beach. They had probably been floating around for a little while, at least. I didn't mention it, but I believe on eof the articles said that at least one of the blobs had barnacles on it.

posted on Fri, 09/26/2008 - 5:29pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Fergie how could you?!!!!

posted on Sat, 09/27/2008 - 6:26pm

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