Monday, 4 February 2013

Sailboat Cruisers Chance at Finding Beachcombers 'Floating Gold' (Ambergris)

How many times have we been beachcombing and examined odd lumps lying on the strand in the vain hope it just might be a piece of Ambergris. Over the last twenty years there have been just a handful of findings reported, so don't get your hopes up too high! Yet, with all the sperm whales in the oceans, there must be thousands floating aimlessly about, so who knows, you could get lucky one day.

Here is the latest find reported from the UK:

'A man from Morecambe, UK, believes his dog has found a rare piece of whale vomit while walking on the beach.

Ken Wilman said when Madge the dog "started poking at a rather large stone" he realised it was unusual.
Ken Wilman with treasure and dog

He left the ambergris on the beach but "something triggered in my mind" and, after doing some research, he went back to get it.

The substance, which is found in the digestive system of sperm whales, is valuable and used in perfume.

Mr Wilman said: "When I picked it up and smelled it I put it back down again and I thought 'urgh'.

"It has a musky smell, but the more you smell it the nicer the smell becomes."

He is now waiting to get the 3kg (7lb) piece tested and said he had been offered 50,000 euros (£43,000) for it by a French dealer.

Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Scotland, said: "It's worth so much because of its particular properties.

"It's a very important base for perfumes and it's hard to find any artificial substitute for it.

"Over time it becomes a much sweeter smell as it oxidises, but initially it doesn't smell very nice."

Ambergris is a natural excrement thought to be used by the whale as a digestion aid and is expelled from its abdomen often while hundreds of miles away from land.

The hard beaks of giant squid, a main source of food for sperm whales, have often been found inside lumps of ambergris.

Initially, it is a soft, foul-smelling matter that floats on the ocean but through exposure to the sun and the salt water over years it turns into a smooth lump of compact rock which feels waxy and has a sweet smell.

It is still used in perfumes, although many perfume makers now use a synthetic version.'

What is Ambergris (Grey amber)?:

Ambergris is a substance secreted by sperm whales which is thought to protect against intestinal irritation caused by the beaks of their prey, squid and cuttlefish

Large pieces of the substance are vomited up by the whales and, once disgorged, float on water. Over ten to 20 years, the soft, foul-smelling waste solidifies and its odour mellows to become sweeter and more musky

It has the nickname of floating gold, due to its value to the perfume industry, but has also been used as incense, medicine and a food flavouring.

My own brush with this fascinating phenomenon of nature occurred in The Tuamotus islands of French Polynesia. Here is the extract from my ebook 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise':

'Glittering sunlight shafting diagonally through his open hatch, her captain gradually becomes conscious another day has dawned. Powerless to resist the pull, he rises, and standing on his bunk, pokes his head out of the hatch surveying the early morning scene. That gorgeous dewy look is everywhere - running rivulets off the sky, dripping from the palms, slithering down the glass of the hatch and collecting momentarily in prismatic globs on the sun greyed teak decking. Airborne frangipani fragrance wafts all around and our captain espy’s the ‘dance master’ from the other evening gliding along the beach – funny how certain smells can trigger earlier related visions! Eyes blinking, she is gone, the beach now empty of human life. All that remains are the very same coconut husks strewn about, unmoved, as they were yesterday.

The still air produces hardly a sound this early. The flat glassy sheet of lagoon water is undisturbed apart from an occasional plop of small fish leaving behind their ever widening circles as they flop back in.

Scalding coffee from the cafetiere injects some life into their veins and kick starts the day. Our little ship, drawing her nourishment from the water she is in and the wind, wonders why her crew have to sit down at regular intervals, ingesting vulgar quantities of all kinds of food? It must be important to them as they spend an inordinate amount of time engaging in this pastime. At least when they are thus occupied they are not poking and prodding at her!

Over breakfast and sheltering under the awning, her captains gaze is once again drawn to the sandy strip he explored the afternoon before – embedded in his brain since he first looked this morning it nags at him now - something has changed in the disorderly pattern of the driftwood strewn along the beach. He missed something yesterday? Has it arrived overnight? Is he imagining a distorted form in the shimmering curtains rising from the sand? Whatever, there is a rounded dark lump where there wasn’t yesterday.

A good chunk of Ambergris
He cannot leave this place without investigating – so into the tender and a quiet pull to shore. He slipped away with hardly a sound but our little ship feels his anticipatory excitement:

‘Off on a wild goose chase again!’ she supposes - but, what if it is what he thinks it could be? It just might be, after all these years of looking for a lump of ambergris, or 'Floating Gold', the chunk of stuff Sperm whales burp out of their sometimes irritated stomachs. 

Maybe his fortune is in today and he is about to strike lucky. Stooping to lift it from its bed in the sand he is almost overcome with the possibilities. Hefting it in his hands he estimates the weight at around twelve kilograms – wow! At twelve to fifteen US dollars per gram, that is a small fortune! No matter it cannot be traded in the US, there are plenty of places where it can be sold on the open market.

Cradling it in his arms he shuffles back to the Avon, placing it reverently in the bottom, and rows back with considerably greater energy than going in. Careful not to lose his balance on his wobbly platform, he gently rolls it into the cockpit.

Announcing to the rest of her crew the arrival of this great treasure, he dives into the locker containing the sewing kit and pulls out a monstrous sail needle. These needles have a large spaded tip, sharp as, to penetrate leather, and with an overall appearance of malicious intent. Heated to a red glow over the stove, her captain inserts the searing tip into his new found object of worship. Apart from radiating a few lazy wisps of white smoke, nothing happens. No pool of dark viscous fluid with musky fragrance? Reheat the needle and insert again in a different position – same result, nothing. Several more attempts produce no further change, and the remainder of her crew by this time are super sceptical and articulating many banal offerings! Her captain finally gives in and accepts that ‘his’ lump is not a piece of ambergris – fools gold! No matter, it created some interest for a time.

Its momentary attraction over and having no further use, the ‘blob’ is consigned back to whence it came. Lobbing it overboard, it is last seen disappearing at the end of its parabolic curve with a dull lagoon gulp. Sinking slowly, a few small fish follow it to rest on the floor of the lagoon, raising a dusty cloud of sand, then ignore it. Never did find out what it was!'

The lightly gusting breeze breathes into her sails, whitely ballooning and majestic, driving her back across the lagoon...........'

You can read the rest of this story and many other cruising adventures by downloading 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' from my website for sailors  

 news article courtesy AFP, video courtesy YouTube.

I'm off to the beach now!!

No comments: