Stories tagged ambergris

Sep
26
2008

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.