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Discovering Ambergris: Priceless Whale Snot

The Highs And Lows Of Finding Ambergris

Story provided by an

Australian Thrill Seeker and TTS Swag Winner

Andrew Clark

The Big Storm

On October 12,  2016, a big storm belted the 2,632 inhabitants of the small, seaside village of Port Noarlunga South, located 30 kilometers south of Adelaide, Australia. Port Noarlunga South is where the Onkaparinga River meets the salty water of St. Vincent Gulf.  The big storm created fierce flooding and left a wake of destruction behind in the form of tons of wood, sponges, sea grasses, and other ocean debris.

Catching The Beachcombing Bug

After watching a new’s program from the U.K., about a man finding a lump of debris on the beach that turned out to be worth $240,000, my son and I began walking the beaches around Port Noarlunga South. After six years of walking the beaches on a daily basis, we collected all kinds of sponges, shells, and other ocean related items.

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The Discovery

The day after the big storm, we stumbled upon a small, hard, unknown lump in the sand. We dug the lump out of the sand, but were taken back by the stench and decided to leave it on the beach.  As an after thought, I conducted a Google search and found out that the smelly lump was actually something called ambergris.

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What Is Ambergris?

Ambergris is highly, valuable material discharged by Sperm Whales. Ambergris is believed to be produced in a secretion of the bile duct, in the intestine of the Sperm Whale. Giant Squid beaks are often found in Ambergris, which leads scientists to theorize that ambergris is used to break down the squid beaks and aid passage through the Sperm Whale’s digestive tract.

Normally ambergris is passed with Sperm Whale’s fecal matter, but if the ambergris lump becomes too large and forms into an impassable size, it is discharged through the whale’s mouth as vomit.

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It can take years to develop ambergris in a whale. Ambergris is only developed in Sperm Whales and is only developed by 1% of Sperm Whales.  Ambergris can float in the ocean for years before making landfall. All of these factors combined make ambergris a very, rare substance.

Ambergris Facts

  • Ambergris can range in size from a couple of ounces up to a record 110 pounds.
  • In 2015, a 29 pound piece of ambergris was found on a beach in Oman.
  • Ambergris is generally found on the beaches of southern oceans.
  • Ambergris comes out of the Sperm Whale as a pale color, but through time and oxidation develops into a gray or black color.
  • A fossilized piece of ambergris from 1.75 million years ago was discovered.
  • Most commercially found ambergris comes from the Bahamas and the Caribbean particularly New Providence.
  • In 2015, a 2.4 pound lump of Ambergris from Wales sold for $17,ooo at auction.

What Is Ambergris Used For?

In modern times, ambergris is used primarily in the production of high-end perfumes around the world.

Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as an incense and modern day Egyptians use it for scenting cigarettes.

Ancient Chinese used ambergris for perfume production, as an aphrodisiac, and for food flavoring.

During the Middle Ages, Europeans burned ambergris because they thought the smell would ward off the plague and fight colds, headaches, and epilepsy.

 We Are Rich

After collecting several lumps of ambergris over the course of several days after the big storm, we thought we were rich.
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We found some tests on the internet that involved lighting a small piece of the ambergris on fire, which produced a white smoke, confirming we did indeed have the priceless, whale snot.
 
Next, we took a lump of our ambergris to a local museum. The curator showed us a piece of ambergris that had been drying for seven years, confirmed that we had indeed had found ambergris, then asked us to leave immediately because it was illegal for us to have it in our possession. However, the curator suggested we leave the lump of ambergris near the back door and that he would display it in the museum.
Now all we had to do was find a perfume manufacturer that wanted to purchase our rare ambergris for exclusive perfumes and we were going to be rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Not So Fast

When we tried to sell our ambergris we quickly found out that in South Australia, the government owns anything found on the beach, especially items of waste from whales. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 prevents the sale of ambergris in Australia. In the United States, The Endangered Species Act of 1973 prevents the sale of ambergris. Australian and United States laws are designed to prevent animal cruelty and profiting from animal products.

Now What?

So there I was with over three kilos of nearly priceless, whale snot in one of the few countries in the world I could not legally sell it. I tried explaining this issue to my eight-year-old son, but he could not grasp the issue. We had whale snot worth more than it’s weight in gold and could do nothing to collect on this fortune.
 
Without any legal way to collect our fortune and not wanting to go to jail, we buried our treasure, hoping for a change in Australian laws that someday would make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.    

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