On Long Beach

Ambergris is an extraneous Substance, that swims in the Sea, and is swallowed as a Delicacy by the Fishes, and voided by them again undigested. It seldom stays long enough, to be found in their Bodies. – Caspar Neumann, On Ambergris (1729)

I tell people that they’ve got to sniff a lot of dog droppings before they find a bit of ambergris.    – Interview with amateur historian Lloyd Esler, New Zealand (2010)

It’s a rainy afternoon on Long Beach. I am standing beneath a mackerel sky, holding a strange little object in my hand. It’s a pale green-gray color, like a barely steeped cup of green tea, and it looks like a potato. I hold it up to the gray light and examine it more closely in the rain. Sitting in the palm of my hand, it feels light and spongy. It could be a thick stalk of decomposing seaweed, still wet from the ocean, or an old and waterlogged piece of driftwood. It might be a shriveled piece of marine sponge, dislodged from the seafloor and then washed ashore by the last tide. It could be an almost infinite number of different things. In fact, the object in my hand could actually be a potato. It might have traveled from the other side of the world, bobbing and rolling around on ocean currents for months, or even years, before finally arriving on the beach. I bring it to my nose and carefully smell it, hoping it is ambergris. Nothing. It has no detectable odor, except perhaps the faintest briny trace of the sea. And so I discard it and move on again, slowly making my way northward along the beach. Head lowered, I survey the wet sand, bending occasionally to pick up an object before smelling it and then pitching it over my shoulder. Behind me, I have left a wide and messy debris field.

* * *

Long Beach is a remote 1.5-mile-long strip of sand located almost fifteen miles north of Dunedin, a city that sits near the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. It is well named: a long straight shot of sand, like a thin yellow band wedged between the sea and the towering cliffs. At the tidemark, a long skein of bladder kelp: wrist-thick green cables terminating in large disc-shaped holdfasts, dumped unceremoniously on the sand by the last tide. This is ambergris territory. Remote. Windswept. White noisy waves crash along the length of the sands.

I have come to Long Beach to find ambergris, a substance I have never seen or smelled before. Even if I see a piece of it, half hidden by a wet tangle of bladder kelp, I will probably walk past it. Despite this fundamental obstacle, I reassure myself every few paces that I will find some ambergris eventually if I am simply willing to spend long enough searching for it. And I trudge onward through the rain: cliffs unspooling solidly on my left, and the sea, a shifting range of slippery gray peaks, to my right.

Everything I know about ambergris, I have learned from watching the news reports on the enormous drum-shaped lump of lard that washed ashore on Breaker Bay in 2008, which means I know almost nothing. In fact, I know less than nothing, because the reports had been filled with inaccuracies.

But I’ve learned a few important things: first, ambergris is an intestinal secretion, expelled only by sperm whales. It washes ashore with the tide and has a complex and hard-to-describe smell. I also know that ambergris has been used for centuries to make perfume. It acts as a fixative, anchoring the fragrance to the wearer’s skin and making it last longer. Finally, and most importantly, I have read that ambergris is valuable. In fact, it’s worth so much that hundreds of people had descended onto Breaker Bay, dismantled a half-ton block of lard with their garden tools, and then taken pieces of it home, believing it was ambergris.

At home, I had begun to research ambergris: I visited libraries, leafed through encyclopedias, took notes from textbooks on marine mammals, and copied recipes from old perfume formularies. I read old ledgers, journals, and court registers. And I spent an inordinate amount of time online, reading dense scientific literature and trying to understand strange 400-year-old texts. I had learned, for instance, that when King Charles II’s daughter Elizabeth was born in St. James Palace in 1635, “the states of Holland, as a congratulatory gift to her father, sent ambergris, rare porcelain and choice pictures.” And in 1689, when English philosopher John Locke published his landmark Two Treatises of Government, he used ambergris to make a point about ownership, writing: “By virtue thereof, what fish any one catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind; or what ambergrease any one takes up here, is by the labour that removes it out of that common state nature left it in, made his property, who takes that pains about it.” In 1693 the Dutch East India Company bought an enormous lump of ambergris weighing 182 pounds from the king of Tidore—a small and remote Indonesian island kingdom—and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, on the other side of the world, wanted it so badly for himself that he offered fifty thousand crowns for it. A seventeenth-century writer traveling through Persia wrote, “The usual drink is sherbet made of water, juice of lemmons and ambergreece.” And Casanova, I read, added ambergris to chocolate mousse, and then ate it for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities. But almost all the references I have found are historical: strange ephemera, weird facts, miscellanea, and curiosities from old books. I have begun to believe that ambergris is something that belongs to the past.

And then I find another, much more recent, account:

On Tuesday, May 9, 2006, ten-year-old Long Beach resident Robbie Anderson was walking his dog Scud on the beach—on this beach, not far from where I’m standing, amid a field of already-rejected debris. Making his way along the shoreline, past windblown sedges and shiny clumps of flax, he found a piece of ambergris in the sand. At the time, Anderson didn’t even know what he had found: it could be a dirty piece of soap, he told himself, or maybe it was part of a decomposing sheep carcass, washed ashore and beached by a recent storm. It was waxy and smelly and strange, but he decided to keep it anyway. So he retrieved it from the sand, tucked it under his arm like a loaf of fresh bread, and carried it home, where he presented it to his father.

It was unremarkable in appearance: a mottled white and gray color, irregular in shape, slightly flattened, and about the size of a football. But it had a strong odor, which was unusual and difficult to categorize. Half buried by sand near the tide line, it had looked like a rotting tree stump or a charred piece of driftwood. I would have walked straight past it on the beach without giving it a second glance. From a distance, I might have mistaken it for a dead seagull or a waterlogged shoe. But it was ambergris. It weighed about a pound and a half. The following day, Robbie and his father—who is also called Robert—returned to the beach and carefully scoured the shoreline. By then, they had researched the object and realized it could be ambergris, worth a lot of money. On the second day, they found an additional half pound of ambergris, broken into several smaller pieces, which they took home and placed next to the larger lump. The total haul was worth approximately $10,000.

A brief report of the discovery was published a few days later in the New Zealand Herald under the headline “whale coughs up a jack- pot.” Accompanying the article was a photograph of Robbie Anderson on the beach: a wide toothy grin on his face, ambergris cradled in his hand like a chunk of wet rotten wood. Since reading about the find, I have visited Long Beach often. It’s why I’m here now, walking along the tide line in search of ambergris and hoping that, by simply wanting it enough, I can somehow will another two-pound lump ashore so that I can find it, among the drifts of kelp and the empty crab shells, overturned in the sand.

* * *

Ambergris begins its long journey in darkness, beneath several hundred tons of seawater, in the warm and cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale. This much is known. If many aspects of its journey are not so clear, this is because the lives of sperm whales are still mostly shrouded in mystery—a collection of theories rather than facts. As they leave the ocean surface, glistening green-gray flukes disappearing beneath the chop, they simply leave our world behind and dive into another.

Measuring up to sixty feet in length, an adult male sperm whale is the largest of the toothed—or odontocete—whale species. Like most whale species—such as the barnacled southern right whale, with its huge arched grill of baleen; or the beluga whale, with its bulbous head—the sperm whale is a strange-looking animal. Its eyes seem hastily and carelessly placed, almost marooned behind the blunt box-like head, located up to a third of the way along its tapering torpedo-shaped body. Or, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: “Now, from this peculiar sideway position of the whale’s eyes, it is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can see one exactly astern. In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears.”

To maintain its prodigious body weight—approximately fifty tons for a bull and around twenty tons for a cow—a sperm whale must consume about a ton of food a day, diving again and again to pressures that collapse its flexible rib cage to a quarter of its normal volume. In fact, almost everything about a sperm whale is as implausibly oversize as its appetite: a seventeen-pound brain; a lower jaw punctuated with around fifty large, conical teeth, each of which weighs up to two pounds; a huge muscular heart. In a 1959 article from the scientific journal Circulation titled “A Large Whale Heart,” researchers described a 256-pound sperm whale heart, which was removed from a large bull whale killed by a Peruvian whaling company. The heart is a large marbled mass, like a misshapen mound of uncooked dough, striated with bands of muscle and dotted with thick valves. One of the authors holds the large vessels of the heart in his hands for a series of grainy black-and-white photographs. He points the open gaping end of the aorta toward the camera. It mea- sures almost eight inches across and resembles an empty pant leg.

During just one of its hour-long dives, beyond the farthest reaches of sunlight to depths of more than a mile below the ocean surface, a large bull sperm whale can ingest hundreds of pounds of deepwater squid. After more than twenty minutes shouldering steadily downward, through progressively colder layers of water to the mesopelagic zone— between 650 and 3,300 feet below sea level—he feeds gluttonously on cephalopods near the seafloor, eating squid that range from just a few ounces in weight to huge muscular specimens weighing more than two hundred pounds.

This much is known, but so much regarding the daily activities of sperm whales—a significant proportion of which occurs at extreme pressure, deep below the ocean surface—is not. It remains a complete mystery. In some respects, we know as much now as we did in 1770, when James Robertson, Esq., of Edinburgh, described a beached dead sperm whale—referring to it as a “cachalot,” a name given to it by the French— for the journal Philosophical Transactions in an article titled “Description of the Blunt-headed Cachalot”:

PHYSETER, Catodon Linnaei, blunt-headed Cachalot, British Zoology, run ashore upon Cramond Island, and was there killed, December 22, 1769. Cramond Island is in the Firth of Forth, four miles above Leith. The fish measured fifty-four feet in length; its greatest circumference, which was a little behind the eyes, thirty. The head was nearly one half the whole fish, of an oblong form, and rounded, except within six feet of the extremity, where it had inequalities, shewn by the transverse section.

Robertson went on to describe the carcass in detail: its tapered body and wedge-shaped tail; its toothless upper jaw with “twenty-three sockets on each side, for lodging the teeth of the lower, when the mouth was shut”; and its “remarkably small” eyes. He details the spermaceti organ— two large oil-filled reservoirs, crisscrossed and laced with capillaries— which is responsible for the sperm whale’s large blunt head and occupies most of its volume. As A.F. Busching noted in 1762, “The head makes near half the bulk of the fish, not unlike the butt end of a musket.”

During the whaling era, a large bull whale could yield as much as four tons of valuable oil. Prized by whalers as lamp oil, as a material for candle making, and used worldwide as a commercial lubricant, the oil turns white and congeals on contact with the air. It earned the whale its name when it was first mistaken for semen. Robertson wrote: “The substance, improperly called Spermaceti, and erroneously said to be prepared from the fat of the brain, was everywhere contained in a fluid state in the cavity of the head along with the brain, but quite distinct from it.”

Back in 1770, when Robertson was describing the sperm whale, the purpose of the spermaceti organ was unknown. The value of the oil contained within it was not. “To come at that fluid, the workmen made a hole into the cavity of the head,” Robertson explained, “and took it out with a skimmer from among the substance of the brain, as it flowed to the hole, which it did like water springing up into a well.” Almost 250 years later, the purpose of the spermaceti organ is still unknown.Whale experts—or cetologists—study such things aboard research vessels that bob around on the ocean surface, miles above their elusive subjects. They might as well be using their instruments to study the geology of Mars.

Among the remaining mysteries: How does such a lumbering and slow-moving mammal manage to eat so many squid? Are the squid sluggish and vulnerable at such extreme depths and temperatures? Does the pale pigmentation of the whale’s lips attract squid toward its open mouth? Do the whales stun squid momentarily defenseless with a sudden burst of sonar clicks? No one knows. Almost all theories are possible and worthy of consideration.

* * *

Reprinted with permission from Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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CHRISTOPHER KEMP is a molecular biologist who currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and two sons. He has worked as a columnist for Cincinnati CityBeat, and his science writing has appeared on Salon. He can be reached at [email protected].

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