The Gold That Floats

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Gary and Angela Williams of Lancashire, England, recently discovered a sticky, smelly, rock-like substance while strolling along Middleton Sands beach near Morecambe Bay. If the “rock” turns out to be what they suspect, it could land them an estimated $100,000.

Unbelievable as it may seem, ambergris, also known as the “floating gold” or simply “whale poop,” has become a treasured global commodity due to its mysterious origin and rarity.

Caused by indigestion from certain foods, such as cuttlefish and squids with horny beaks, this ancient treasure is produced by sperm whales to protect their stomach lining. Experts suspect as few as five percent of sperm whales produce the substance. The result is a rare wax-like growth found in the stomach and intestines of the animal, which is then processed and excreted, and thus found floating on ocean tides or washed up on shores.

While many cultures have prized ambergris for thousands of years, biologists have only recently determined its origins.

Ancient Egyptians burned it as incense, while denizens of the Middle East rubbed it into their hair and on their bodies to trigger an aphrodisiacal effect. Arabs used it to spice food along and to treat heart and brain ailments. The Greeks added it to wine to amplify the effects of alcohol. Italian courtiers sprinkled it in tea, and the Dutch and the English ate it with their morning eggs.

BTRtoday speaks with Mandy Aftel, all-natural perfumer of Aftelier Perfumes and author of “Fragrant,” who describes a distinctive drink recipe by Jean Anthem Brillat-Savarin for “Chocolat Ambre.” The culinary concoction consists of shaved dark chocolate and hot water, sprinkled with a substantial amount of ground ambergris. The combination was believed to help boost the immune system.

Although no longer consumed for medicinal purposes or as a spice, ambergris still remains a valued commodity in the perfume industry due to its complex and aromatic scent. Aftel explains that as it gets older, both the color and scent of the substance change.

When it first comes out, it is black, tar-like and mixed with fecal matter, emitting an understandably unpleasant odor. As it floats around on the water, it oxidizes, hardening and lightening to a gray color. The foul manure odor fades, and the scent becomes more sweet and musky.

“As they age, they take on this marine, amber-y smell until they’re unbelievably beautiful…not like you would expect it to smell,” Aftels says. “It’s all about transformation. It’s the ultimate alchemical transformation.”

As a result, ambergris becomes more precious the longer it floats across the seas.

Aftel describes the first time she had a whiff of real ambergris: “I was in heaven. It was the most gorgeous smell I had ever encountered—shimmering, ambery, jewel-like, warm, luminous. Simply indescribable.”

Although difficult to describe to someone who has never encountered the fragrance, Aftel illustrates her favorite variety, sweet black, as “very animal and sweet, tar-like, smooth and slightly fishy.” Other types she describes as beachy, marine, earthy, woody, smooth, intense, foul, and so on.

The shape also varies from flat to square, although usually a more round, oval shape is found on the shores. When fresh, the texture is often soft and sticky like tar, though as it ages, it becomes hard and waxy, sometimes with a powdery, white coating. Aftel describes it as feeling similar to a pumice stone.

As a result of the various shapes, scents, colors, and textures, identification can be difficult–and disappointing for beach-combers who believe they’ve made a find.

In 2015, Ken Wilman was walking along Morecambe beach in northern England when his dog, Madge, discovered a large, hard and smelly matter which he believed to be ambergris. Unfortunately for him, the lump was no more than worthless beach waste.

Aftel compares these stories about ambergris-finds to those of the discovery of “The Maltese Falcon.” She tells the story of a man sitting and drinking rum on the beach. He throws his empty rum bottle and it strikes something, but it doesn’t break. He toddles over to inspect the bottle, completely hammered, and then looks at the “rock” it hit. He decides it’s kind of strange and takes it into town only to find out it is ambergris. The man ends up buying the entire island (and probably a lot more rum too).

This story may be a tall tale, but there are fascinating true stories just like it. The largest find weighed 455 kg and sold for £23,000 in 1914. A recent 1.1 kg piece was found on a beach in Anglesey, Wales, and sold for £11,000.

Besides its curious history, the value of this unusual substance results from its effect on fragrance. Aftel notes that when included in a perfume, it adds a more translucent, shimmering nature to the scent’s texture that can’t be otherwise achieved.

“It’s an exalting element in a perfume,” Aftel says. “It makes perfume last longer, it smells beautiful, and adds a kind of mystery to it.”

Much about the sperm whale remains a mystery, as they live and feed in the deepest reaches of the ocean. But keep an eye out and follow your nose, and it just may pay off.