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Ambergris

Mom and pop gold panning is enjoying a rebirth in California. I examined a few videos about stream panning, and decided instead to renew my interest in ocean beachcombing after Googling, “What’s more expensive than gold?”

Poop from a sick sperm whale? Strange but true. And there’s not a thing you can do about it. By today’s gold standards, ambergris — cured sick sperm whale feces — is $10 per troy ounce, richer than gold itself. Why? When cured correctly, ambergris is crucial in the making of fine perfumes.

Ambergris is used as a fixative and fragrance amplifier for many perfumes. It accentuates, deepens and strengthens the endurance of aroma. Also synthesized for use in cheaper perfumes with less staying power, perfumers consider genuine beach cast ambergris to be a recession-proof commodity. Even at roughly $10,000/lb., there’s always a market for beach cast (natural) ambergris, as it cannot be produced on demand by any means in its natural form.

In some countries it remains legal to collect ambergris when beachcombing, as it is naturally considered cast-off excrement of the sperm whale: a derivative of whale dung cured while floating, exposed to the salt and sun, in any ocean on earth for ten or twenty years after having been shat out by the sperm whale.

Collecting ambergris doesn’t require killing the whale as in the time of Moby Dick because ambergris has to be pooped out of a sick whale in the process of sperm whale digestion and elimination. Killing the whale would do no good. That’s not the way to collect ambergris. Random coincidence when beachcombing is usually the proper way to collect precious ambergris.

Speaking of the ocean’s riches, poet Phyllis McGinley wrote, “The wholesome oyster wears no pearl, the healthy whale no ambergris.”

Reading the Bangkok Post one morning, the tourist talk in that hemisphere was from New Zealand where there was of a huge boulder-sized chunk of aromatic ambergris weighing 40 kilos found by beachcombers, who collected nearly $400,000 for the coveted waxy “substance” necessary in the process of making fine perfumes.

They admit they're guessing, but experts say that only 10% of sperm whales possess the ability to produce ambergris because they are ill and cannot digest squid beaks. In Moby Dick, Melville wrote of ambergris as, “an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.” Ambergris was largely used in Melville’s era, in “perfumery, pastilles, precious candles, hair powders, and pomatum.”

In 2005, a 200 year old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette, which featured ambergris as a main ingredient, was reproduced in limited small (few milliliter) quantities for $11,000 per bottle.

I await receipt of the only book listed in the library on the subject of ambergris, which is, “Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris” by Christopher Kemp, published in 2012. There’s only one copy for an entire Coastal county of beachcombers.

The territory of sperm whales covers oceans everywhere on earth with the exception of the coldest waters around the North and South Poles. Ireland, England and New Zealand are countries where it remains legal to take ambergris. So why isn’t more ambergris found by beachcombers? Would you know what it was if you found some? One hint is that ambergris is said to smell woodsy, rather similar to the hippy perfume, patchouli or boxed crystal amber perfume from India, but not as strong as either. The scent is subtle — not overpowering. If you’re walking on any ocean beach and smell perfume, look around for ambergris.

Ambergris is a waxy substance mainly consistent with cholesterol secreted by the gastrointestinal tract of a sick sperm whale to help the whale pass a plethora of knife-sharp reticulated squid beaks which are tough as razor blades to pass, stuck whole in the sperm whale bowel after digestion. Ambrein (cholesterol), alkalides and acids create ambergris, which helps the squid beaks …pass, within the yolk-like ambrein secretions. The chemical component ambrein is what prolongs scent in perfume.

“Moby Sick Makes Boy Rich,” fetching $65,000 for the Irishman’s beach find. Another journal states that 1% of 350,000 sperm whales produce ambergris. Again, the collection of such stats is as speculative as the collection of actual ambergris.

I’ve asked every ocean-going fisherman I know who fishes out of Point Arena, if they’ve ever seen whale dung floating in the Pacific. They all look at me awkwardly and say, “no.” Others who have fished the high seas and sighted floating whale dung describe it as foul smelling and consisting of black tarry feces floating and encapsulated in an albumin/yolk-like substance which holds the entire bowel movement together while it drifts for ten or twenty years in salt and sun before becoming beach cast ambergris. Years of salt water and sun bleach out the specimen, changing smell, consistency, texture, color and appearance, until finally, only the waxy portion remains, to be used by perfumers worldwide, or just to sit on the beach and become the property of no one, like driftwood …expensive nothing.

Aside from the distinctive smell, one way to tell if you indeed have ambergris in your hand, is to see if it responds to flame. It should melt like a resin when ignited. Also, heating a pin or paperclip and sticking it into the “stone” or wax chunk of ambergris, will expose both smell and resin-like melting qualities; two hallmarks of ambergris.

It has been illegal to collect ambergris in the US since 1972. French ambergris trader Bernard Perrin attributes the decline in the use of ambergris to “The Americans, …ecology, Green Party, blah, blah, blah,” and a desire to keep perfume prices low by use of synthetic alternatives to imitate ambergris’ signature scent and fixative properties, the quality of which cannot be duplicated.

One of the biggest disappointments about “keeping” ambergris, is that ambergris diminishes speedily. When grasped too tightly, it slips away from the warmth of your hand. Heat speeds dispersal. It must be carefully stored for only short periods of time prior to being transformed into perfume, or it will dissipate and disappear into thin air before it can be used, this organic matter of aroma.

YouTube had a very interesting movie of an “Ambergris find on Bolinas Beach” from 1934. At one soundless minute long, it showed throngs of locals beach-combing and excitedly sharing their finds with the camera. It turned out, however, that none of the suspected beachcombing finds were the stuff of actual ambergris, but the search goes on.

Buena fortuna.

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