Grey amber: Heavenly scent
Interesting article by Christopher Kent at New Scientist on ambergris (“grey amber”). Free registration required if not a subscriber:
IT’S a rainy afternoon on Long Beach. I am standing beneath a mackerel sky, holding a strange little object in the palm of my hand. It’s pale green-grey and looks like a potato. It could be a stalk of decomposing seaweed, a waterlogged piece of driftwood or a shrivelled piece of sponge. It could actually be a potato.
I bring it to my nose and smell it. Nothing. It has no discernible odour, except perhaps a faint briny trace. And so I discard it and move on, slowly making my way along the beach, bending occasionally to pick up an object before smelling it and then pitching it over my shoulder.
I have come to this remote strip of sand north of Dunedin, New Zealand, to find ambergris, a substance I have never seen or smelled before. Even if a piece of it is lying there, half hidden by a tangle of kelp, I will probably walk past it. Despite this, I reassure myself every few paces that if I just spend long enough searching, I will find some.
My interest in ambergris had been sparked a few months earlier by news reports of a strange object that washed up on Breaker Bay near Wellington in September 2008. It was roughly cylindrical, about the size and shape of an oil drum, and weighed an estimated 500 kilograms. It was soft, greasy and the colour of dirty week-old snow.
Rumours spread quickly. Some said it was a large piece of cheese, probably Brie. Others suggested it was soap. Then another rumour began to circulate: it was ambergris. Soon, people were carving off large chunks and taking them home. Three days after it washed up there was nothing left. All around the bay, people were celebrating their sudden and unanticipated wealth.
When I first heard about the object, I went online thinking I would learn everything I needed to know about ambergris in minutes. As a former scientist, I’m used to being able to access whatever information I want. But I found almost no useful information at all, mostly esoteric scientific papers and medical texts published in the 18th century.
One of the few recent accounts was from The New Zealand Herald. In May 2006, 10-year-old Robbie Anderson was walking his dog on Long Beach when he found something on the sand. It was mottled white and grey, irregular in shape and about the size of a loaf of bread. It had a strong odour, which was unusual and difficult to categorise. So he took it home.
The following two days, Robbie and his father returned to the beach. They had researched the object and realised it could be ambergris. On the second day, they found more. In total, their haul was worth about NZ$10,000.
Since reading about the Andersons’ find, I started to visit Long Beach, walking along the tide line searching for ambergris. I also began visiting libraries, leafing through encyclopaedias, reading old ledgers and journals and calling museum curators and ambergris traders. It was as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole. More than anything else, my motivation was the lack of reliable information about ambergris. Even descriptions of its odour seemed inadequate. I decided to do everything possible to experience it for myself.
From my initial online search, I had learned a few important things. First, ambergris is an intestinal secretion of sperm whales that washes ashore with the tide and has a complex and hard-to-describe smell. It has been used for centuries as an ingredient in perfume, and also as a medicine, aphrodisiac, incense and flavouring. Its name means “grey amber”, although it is not amber; it is also known as ambergreen, ambergrease or simply “floating gold”. Most importantly, it is rare and extremely valuable. It is traded for up to US$20 per gram, depending on its quality. At times it has been worth more than gold.
Given its origins, the value attached to ambergris is somewhat strange. Its journey begins in darkness, in the cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale, as a mass of undigested squid and faeces.
An adult male sperm whale measures up to 20 metres long and weighs as much as 50 tonnes. To maintain its prodigious size it must consume about a tonne of food a day, diving repeatedly to great depths to guzzle squid. In 1993, cetologists surveyed the stomach contents of 17 sperm whales killed in the Azores and found the remains of almost 29,000 squid from 40 different species (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol 339, p 1287).
In the digestive system, most of a squid is broken down quickly, leaving only the beak-like mouthparts, eye lenses and a tough internal organ called the pen undigested. It is these remnants that give rise to ambergris.
Like cows and other ruminants, sperm whales have four stomachs. Food passes from one to the next, being digested along the way. Steadily the stomachs begin to fill with indigestible remains, which coalesce into a dense, glittering mass. Every couple of days, a sperm whale will vomit this into the ocean. This is quite normal – and despite persistent reports that this is where ambergris comes from, it is not.
As oceanographer Robert Clarke explained in his 2006 paper The Origin of Ambergris, the production of actual ambergris requires abnormal processes. Occasionally, the mass of beaks finds its way into a whale’s intestines. As the jagged mass passes from the stomach, it chafes and irritates the intestinal lining. Pushed further along the intestines it becomes a tangled solid, saturated with faeces, which obstructs the rectum. Faeces build up behind it. The gastrointestinal system responds by increasing water absorption from the lower intestines and gradually the mass becomes a concretion – a smooth and striated boulder. Faeces can now make their way past again, between the shrunken boulder and the wall of the intestines. Slowly, the process repeats, adding additional strata to the boulder, which grows larger with each new layer. This process occurs in just 1 per cent of sperm whales, which explains why ambergris is so rare.
A block of raw ambergris can grow to enormous size. The largest piece on record was extracted from a sperm whale killed in 1953. Clarke’s account of it,A Great Haul of Ambergris, includes a photo of a boulder-like object suspended above the deck of the whaler (see “Expensive taste”). It weighed nearly half a tonne (Nature, vol 174, p 155).
In some instances, a whale may be able to expel the obstruction. In others, it is terminal, blocking the gut completely until the whale suffers a fatal intestinal rupture, expelling the boulder into the ocean.
The black and viscous mass – slightly less dense than seawater – is now at the mercy of the currents. It can ride the swell for decades, bobbing and rolling through cyclones and equatorial heat, sometimes getting trapped in large rotating currents called gyres.
Like wine, ocean-going ambergris slowly matures. It is oxidised by salt water, degraded by sunlight and eroded by wave action until, finally, it beaches somewhere along the coastline. Where, nobody can predict.
By the time a well-travelled piece of ambergris washes up on the shore, it has changed. Depending on how long it has been at sea, it will have evolved from a tarry mass to a pale, waxy ball. Over the years, it loses most of its water to become smaller and denser. Its exterior hardens so it resembles a grey stone, a little like pumice or chalk, its interior flecked black with embedded squid beaks.
Most importantly, the faecal smell softens and is replaced by a rich, complex odour that has been compared to fine tobacco, the wood in old churches, the smell of the tide, sandalwood, fresh earth and seaweed in the sun. Clarke once wrote that it reminded him of Brazil nuts.
Whatever it smells of, mature ambergris is highly prized by perfumers, who value it for two properties. First, it is a powerful fixative, slowing the breakdown of a fragrance on the skin and making the scent last longer. Equally important is its singular, animal, odour.
This much I knew, but to experience the smell for myself I needed to speak with people in the business. For more than six months, that was what I attempted to do. Without exception, I failed. I learned that the merest mention of ambergris can change a conversation. Talkative people become taciturn. Wary of revealing too much, anyone familiar with its value and scarcity will say nothing, or respond in generalities.
There is a reason for this: . . .