Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, October 14, 1996

Susan Scott is on vacation

Ambergris was a treasure
in bad old whaling days

I recently received a call from a reader. "I want to write a book about ambergris," he said. "Would you tell me, please, what you know about it?"

I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Ambergris. Hmm. Something about sperm whales and perfume? What was it about ambergris?

The silence on the line lengthened.

"Are you there?" my caller asked.

"Yes. I'm thinking," I said. "I can't tell you anything about ambergris."

He seemed almost happy to hear this. "So that means it would be a good subject for a book, right? If people don't know about it?"

"Maybe. If people want to know about it."

We discussed book writing for a while, then he was off to the library.

I was left with a nagging suspicion that people might not flock to buy a book about ambergris. Ambergris, I soon learned, is whale poop.

To put it more scientifically, ambergris is a waxy substance occasionally produced in the large intestine of sperm whales. The stuff usually looks like lumpy, large potatoes - smooth and dark brown outside; pale yellow to gray inside. The lumps are firm but break apart easily.

Often, parrotlike beaks from squid are embedded in the center of ambergris chunks.

People usually find ambergris either floating on the water's surface, or on a beach. Rarely, masses have been found weighing several hundred pounds.

If you find some disgusting, foul-smelling lump of excrement on the beach, forget it. Fresh ambergris has its own smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Old ambergris smells like musty base ment. An easy way to identify ambergris is to pierce it with a hot needle. Ambergris melts like chocolate, leaving a tacky coating on the needle.

Back in the bad old days of whaling, ambergris was highly prized as an ingredient (called a fixative) in perfume to keep it from evaporating.

Whalers discovering ambergris in the intestines of dead sperm whales had found treasure. Ambergris sold for $15 an ounce, a fortune in the 1880s. Today, even though the perfume industry now uses synthetic fixatives, ambergris is still worth several dollars an ounce.

Sperm whale bodies contained other once-coveted, commercial treasures. The characteristic blunt, squarish snouts of sperm whales contain a barrel-shaped organ, known to whalers as the case. Inside the case is a clear liquid oil called spermaceti.

When it hardens, spermaceti looks like white paraffin of a consistency that reminded sailors of whale semen. And that's where these magnificent animals got their common name, sperm whale.

Spermaceti made excellent candles and ambergris made good perfume. A third sperm whale commodity was the animal's body fat, cooked to make oil for cosmetics, soap and machine oil.

Sperm whale hunting began in 1712 in New England. The first Yankee whale ships arrived in Hawaii in 1819. They spotted and killed a sperm whale off the Big Island.

Little whaling was subsequently done in the vicinity of the main islands but news of sperm whales in Japan triggered a rush of whaleboats to Hawaii. By 1822, 60 ships were here. For the next 18 years, Hawaii's economy was fueled by provisioning these ships and entertaining their men.

There's good news at the end of this sperm whale tale. Although certain populations are depleted, sperm whales remain the most abundant of all the great whales, swimming the world's high seas.

Therefore, it's possible to find ambergris on a Hawaii beach. But regardless of its elegant uses and colorful history, when you pick it up, remember: It's still whale poop.

Susan Scott is a marine science writer and author of three books about Hawaii's environment. Her Ocean Watch column appears Monday in the Star-Bulletin.

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