Stories from a Chicago Cab
“In this wonderful—and surprisingly gripping—book, Christopher Kemp examines the curious history of one of the world’ rarest and most magical substances. This is natural history done well.”—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein
“Following on the scent of what must be the strangest known natural substance, Christopher Kemp’s adventure–filled journey into the often–bizarre world of ambergris takes us from whale innards to remote islands. A compelling narrative, a detective story, and a wonderful window into history and obsession, Floating Gold has struck a rich oceanic seam. With its mixture of scientific rigor, evocative travelogue, and eccentric personalities, Kemp’s book finally uncovers the secrets of this elusive and extraordinary stuff. His book lingers like the smell of ambergris itself.”—Philip Hoare, author of The Whale
The Origin of Ambergris
Ambergris begins its long journey in darkness, beneath several hundred tons of seawater, in the warm and cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale. This much is known. If many aspects of its journey are not so clear, this is because the lives of sperm whales are still mostly shrouded in mystery—a collection of theories rather than facts. As they leave the ocean surface, glistening green–gray flukes disappearing beneath the chop, they simply leave our world behind and dive into another.
Measuring up to sixty feet in length, an adult male sperm whale is the largest of the toothed—or odontocete—whale species. Like most whale species—such as the barnacled southern right whale,with its huge arched grill of baleen; or the beluga whale, with its bulbous head—the sperm whale is a strange–looking animal. Its eyes seem hastily and carelessly placed, almost marooned behind the blunt box–like head, located up to a third of the way along its tapering torpedo–shaped body. Or, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby–Dick: “Now, from this peculiar sideway position of the whale’s eyes, it is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can see one exactly astern. In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears.”
To maintain its prodigious body weight—approximately fifty tons for a bull and around twenty tons for a cow—a sperm whale must consume about a ton of food a day, diving again and again to pressures that collapse its flexible rib cage to a quarter of its normal volume. In fact, almost everything about a sperm whale is as implausibly oversize as its appetite: a seventeen–pound brain; a lower jaw punctuated with around fifty large, conical teeth, each of which weighs up to two pounds; a huge muscular heart. In a 1959 article from the scientific journal Circulation titled “A Large Whale Heart,” researchers described a 256–pound sperm whale heart, which was removed from a large bull whale killed by a Peruvian whaling company. The heart is a large marbled mass, like a misshapen mound of uncooked dough, striated with bands of muscle and dotted with thick valves. One of the authors holds the large vessels of the heart in his hands for a series of grainy black–and–white photographs. He points the open gaping end of the aorta toward the camera. It measures almost eight inches across and resembles an empty pant leg.
During just one of its hour–long dives, beyond the farthest reaches of sunlight to depths of more than a mile below the ocean surface, a large bull sperm whale can ingest hundreds of pounds of deepwater squid. After more than twenty minutes shouldering steadily downward, through progressively colder layers of water to the mesopelagic zone—between 650 and 3,300 feet below sea level—he feeds gluttonously on cephalopods near the sea?oor, eating squid that range from just a few ounces in weight to huge muscular specimens weighing more than two hundred pounds.
This much is known, but so much regarding the daily activities of sperm whales—a significant proportion of which occurs at extreme pressure, deep below the ocean surface—is not. It remains a complete mystery. In some respects, we know as much now as we did in 1770, when James Robertson, Esq., of Edinburgh, described a beached dead sperm whale—referring to it as a “cachalot,” a name given to it by the French— for the journal Philosophical Transactions in an article titled “Description of the Blunt–headed Cachalot”:
physeter, Catodon Linnaei, blunt–headed Cachalot, British Zoology, run ashore upon Cramond Island, and was there killed, December 22, 1769. Cramond Island is in the Firth of Forth, four miles above Leith. The fish measured fifty–four feet in length; its greatest circumference, which was a little behind the eyes, thirty. The head was nearly one half the whole fish, of an oblong form, and rounded, except within six feet of the extremity, where it had inequalities, shewn by the transverse section.
Robertson went on to describe the carcass in detail: its tapered body and wedge–shaped tail; its toothless upper jaw with “twenty–three sockets on each side, for lodging the teeth of the lower, when the mouth was shut”; and its “remarkably small” eyes. He details the spermaceti organ—two large oil–filled reservoirs, crisscrossed and laced with capillaries—which is responsible for the sperm whale’s large blunt head and occupies most of its volume. As A. F. Busching noted in 1762, “The head makes near half the bulk of the fish, not unlike the butt end of a musket.”
During the whaling era, a large bull whale could yield as much as four tons of valuable oil. Prized by whalers as lamp oil, as a material for candle making, and used worldwide as a commercial lubricant, the oil turns white and congeals on contact with the air. It earned the whale its name when it was first mistaken for semen. Robertson wrote: “The substance, improperly called Spermaceti, and erroneously said to be prepared from the fat of the brain, was everywhere contained in a fluid state in the cavity of the head along with the brain, but quite distinct from it.”
Back in 1770, when Robertson was describing the sperm whale, the purpose of the spermaceti organ was unknown. The value of the oil contained within it was not. “To come at that fluid, the workmen made a hole into the cavity of the head,” Robertson explained, “and took it out with a skimmer from among the substance of the brain, as it flowed to the hole, which it did like water springing up into a well.” Almost 250 years later, the purpose of the spermaceti organ is still unknown. Whale experts—or cetologists—study such things aboard research vessels that bob around on the ocean surface, miles above their elusive subjects. They might as well be using their instruments to study the geology of Mars.
Among the remaining mysteries: How does such a lumbering and slow–moving mammal manage to eat so many squid? Are the squid sluggish and vulnerable at such extreme depths and temperatures? Does the pale pigmentation of the whale’s lips attract squid toward its open mouth? Do the whales stun squid momentarily defenseless with a sudden burst of sonar clicks? No one knows. Almost all theories are possible and worthy of consideration.
Sperm whales supplement their cephalopod–rich diet with benthic crabs and octopuses, and with rays and other large ?sh, including sharks measuring up to twelve feet long. Their energy requirements preclude fussiness. They are huge engines, burning fuel constantly. A highly organized species, they break the underwater silence, communicating with flurries of clicks and vocalizations. Their communications are sophisticated and complex, but nothing we can understand. They have been observed coordinating their feeding efforts, with several whales fanning out in a wide arc half a mile long to hunt—holding their positions more than a hundred fathoms beneath the surface, rounding up and herding their prey in the deep–sea gloom. Their diet is a reflection of their surroundings: near Iceland and in the cold waters of the Gulf of Alaska, they eat fish almost exclusively; and farther south, in the warmer waters of the Azores, their diet consists mostly of squid.
In a 1993 study, cetologists surveyed the stomach contents of seventeen sperm whales killed by commercial whalers in the Azores and reported a total of just sixteen fish among the half–digested remains of almost twenty–nine thousand squid. In the digestive system, a squid is broken down quickly, leaving undigested only the mouthparts—called a beak because of their resemblance to a parrot’s beak—along with the inflexible and indigestible eye lenses, and a tough internal quill–like organ called the pen. In the opened and dissected stomachs sat the durable beaks of at least forty different species of squid: mostly from the Octopoteuthidae, Histioteuthidae, and Architeuthidae families, with a few from the Lepidoteuthidae and Ommastrephidae families and smaller numbers of numerous other species thrown in for good measure.
In the belly of a whale, a single solitary squid beak can tell a complex tale. In a general sense, it represents a crude three–dimensional map of the world, with different species of squid occupying distinct and limited geographic regions. Even within those well–defined regions, some squid species are present at some depth zones and completely absent from others. In other words, a lone squid beak, trapped in the warm folds of a whale’s stomach, removed by cetologists, can help provide a history of movement. In the same way that one can tell where a letter was mailed—even after the envelope has ceased to exist—by studying the marks imprinted on its faded postage stamp, whale researchers can learn a lot about a whale from the squid beaks found in its belly. The presence of beaks from Megalocranchia or Gonatus squid genera in the stomach of a sperm whale killed in Azorean waters can mean only one thing: movement. These species do not belong anywhere near the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. They thrive thousands of miles to the north, in colder waters. And, removed from the dissected stomach of a sperm whale in the subtropical Atlantic, Megalocranchia and Gonatus squid beaks indicate purposeful movement across vast distances.
Squid beaks are important for another reason: they help to produce ambergris. As Robert Clarke—the preeminent world expert on ambergris—explains in “The Origin of Ambergris” from 2006, included in the ton of squid a sperm whale eats daily are several thousand squid beaks. Like cows and other ruminants, a sperm whale has four stomachs. Food passes from one stomach to the next and is digested along the way. Steadily, after repeated dives and bouts of voracious feeding a mile beneath the surface, the stomachs slowly begin to fill with nondigested squid remains: great drifts of sharp, black, durable squid beaks,which coalesce to form a large dense glittering mass. Every couple of days, a sperm whale will vomit them into the ocean. This is normal. Importantly, the product, a floating slurry of indigestible material, is not ambergris. It is whale vomit. The two could not possibly be confused with one another. Despite newspaper headlines to the contrary, ambergris is not vomited or coughed up by sperm whales. Robbie Anderson’s ambergris—picked up on Long Beach, tucked beneath his arm like a warm baguette, and taken home to Robert, Sr.—was not “spat out by a sperm whale that swam past coastal Otago,” as stated in the New Zealand Herald news report a few days later. To produce ambergris, other processes—complex pathologies—are required. Occasionally, the mass of squid beaks and pens makes its way through each of the whale’s four cavernous stomachs and into its looping convoluted intestines instead. Once there, it can become ambergris.
Reading parts of Clarke’s “The Origin of Ambergris,” I find it impossible not to imagine him sitting across from me in the galley of a pitching and yawing vessel, several days from landfall and dimly lit by a guttering lantern, as we slide down the sheer gray face of another thirty–foot wave somewhere in the southern Pacific. He wrote:
Now once in the Antarctic in 1948 on board Fl. F. Southern Harvester I examined a sperm whale whose cylindrical last stomach was entirely ?lled with a compacted mass of squid beaks, squid pens and nematode worms. The mass was 1.2 m in length and 0.4 m in diameter. This last stomach is normally empty except for a few small beaks, pens and nematode cuticles. We have only to imagine an imperfect valve, a leaky sphincter between this last stomach and the intestine, when all conditions are set for a train of events which should result in ambergris.
This occurs, Clarke estimated, in around 1 percent of sperm whales. Current sampling methods—which are inexact and always debated—put the sperm whale population at approximately 350,000 worldwide, which means ambergris is produced by only 3,500 sperm whales, scattered throughout the world’s oceans. This explains its rarity—its singularity.
Curved like a parrot’s beak, the squid beaks pass from the stomach, chafing and irritating the delicate intestinal lining on the way. As a growing mass, they are pushed farther along the intestines and become a tangled indigestible solid, saturated with feces, which begins to obstruct the rectum. It acts as a dam. Feces build up behind it. The whale’s gastrointestinal system responds by increasing water absorption from the lower intestines, and gradually the feces saturating the compacted mass of squid beaks become like cement, binding the slurry together permanently. It becomes a concretion—a smooth and striated boulder. Temporarily, feces make their way past it again, passing between the boulder and the wall of the intestines. And, slowly, the process repeats, adding additional strata to the boulder, which grows larger with each new layer in the same way that a tree grows, adding a new growth ring with each passing year.
Perhaps, in some instances, a whale is able to pass the ambergris. In others,the growing boulder of ambergris is fatal. It occludes the gut completely, Clarke explained, and the whale suffers a fatal intestinal rupture. In a process that takes years, one stratum too many has been laid over the top of the others. The ambergris has grown too large for the gut. The dead whale, now adrift on the open seas, slowly begins to swell. Within hours, the stinking carcass will be surrounded by sharks, drawn to the blood in the water like iron filings to a magnet—makos and blues, mostly. From the air, gulls, storm petrels, and shearwaters will arrive in a noisy tangle and settle in the water around the bloated corpse, which has begun to trail a greasy slick of oil behind it through the waves. The smaller fish will feed on it from below, tearing the flesh into strips and fighting over it among themselves. At some point, the ruptured intestines will be torn open by scavengers, and the ambergris will fall into the ocean. The whale carcass will become a floating bounty of food in a challenging and competitive place. The feeding frenzy lasts for weeks, before the remains take one last dive down through the mesopelagic zone and into darkness. In a reversal of fortunes, the benthic crabs and the octopuses will take their turn with whatever is left, picking any remaining flesh from the sturdy white bones on the seafloor.
And miles above, set upon the lurching swell, the ambergris has begun its journey.
Freshly expelled, the black and viscous ambergris—which is slightly less dense than seawater—rises slowly, ascending through the frigid ocean currents. Eventually, it reaches the surface, where it floats in the chop, forgotten and mostly submerged, sometimes for years. It can ride the swell of the southern oceans for decades. Back on land a thousand miles away, life continues. At sea, the ambergris floats: it bobs and rolls through cyclones and equatorial heat, from the Tropics to the stillness of the Doldrums, where it might be stalled for months. It picks up speed in the horse latitudes. It turns poleward and then back again. It gets trapped in ocean gyres—large rotating oceanic current systems that pieces of flotsam can spend years navigating. This journey cannot be substituted. Like wine in a bottle, ambergris slowly matures at sea. Gradually, a molecule at a time, it reacts with its surroundings until—oxidized by salt water, degraded by sunlight, and eroded by wave action—it is beached somewhere along a remote and windswept coastline much like Long Beach; or dumped by a storm onto a busy and populated stretch of sand like Breaker Bay, in sight of a large metropolitan city like Wellington; or it washes up somewhere on the Somali coastline, or in the Chatham Islands, or the Philippines, or northern California, or on a wet little bay in Wales.
“Ambergrease is also found on the Scots Coasts,” wrote Guy Miege in 1715, in The Present State of Great–Britain and Ireland: In Three Parts, “particularly on that of the Island Bernera, one of the Harris Isles, where a Weaver ?nding a Lump of it, and not knowing what it was, burnt it to shew him light, when the strong Scent discover’d it, and made his Head ake. It is also found on the Coasts of Southvist, Kintyre and Orkney.”
In fact, ambergris can wash ashore anywhere there are sperm whales— which is almost everywhere, in all the world’s oceans. Sperm whales are considered a “cosmopolitan” species. Unlike some other whale species, which are restricted to specific environmental bands of ocean—bowhead whales in the Arctic; Bryde’s whales in the Tropics—sperm whales can be found in all the oceans at almost all but the very coldest latitudes. A sperm whale will slowly plow its way through any water, constantly diving deeply for squid, provided it is deeper than about 3,300 feet and not covered in ice. In other words, sperm whales roam almost everywhere, and some of them produce ambergris as they navigate the world’s seas and oceans. The churning oceanic currents then carry the ambergris everywhere else, even to those few isolated places where sperm whales might physically be absent.
There is a randomness and unpredictability to a journey like this. It is unknowable. At various times, ambergris has been found in some strange and surprising places. In September 1908, the Hartford Courant reported a lucky find by a Noank, Connecticut, fisherman: while hauling up lobster pots from the bottom of Long Island Sound, John Carrington, captain of the Ella May, discovered that one of his traps contained a one–pound piece of ambergris. A year later the Washington Post described the moment that the crew of the Hockomock, on its return to Boston, opened up one of several swordfish taken on the Georges Bank and discovered a large piece of ambergris inside it. “The piece brought in today,” the article read, “is estimated to be worth $20,000.”
A fresh fragrant lump of ambergris could wash ashore just a handful of miles from where it was expelled. It could arrive a day or so later with the tide on Long Beach, black and sticky and smelling of fresh dung. A large valuable piece of ambergris could be there now, drying in the wind, waiting for me to find it. Or it could be carried for years instead, taken by strong currents across remote and unvisited parts of the ocean, slowly eroding until no part of it is left. There is a chance it will outlast the whale that produced it, the result of an intestinal rupture at sea. And once found, there is no way to discern the slightest information about a piece of ambergris, either when or where it was made and expelled into the ocean, or which route it took to arrive where it was found. It is simply a mystery: an artifact, a totem, a relic. Was it once part of a larger piece? Is it a year old, or has it been floating for twenty winters or more, traveling in a huge circuitous arc across the world’s oceans? All but the most immediate information is unknown and cannot be discovered.
By the time an aged and well–traveled piece of ambergris arrives on the shore, though, it is different. It has been worked on by the ocean, tossed around on the waves for years like a single grain of wheat in a vast combine. Depending on how long it has been at sea, its color and texture will have evolved from a black tar–like substance to a pale, smooth waxy ball, rolling in the surf. Over the years, it loses most of its water content. It becomes smaller and denser. Its exterior hardens and takes on a tough rind–like appearance. More than anything else, it now resembles a light gray stone—a little like pumice stone, chalk, or dried clay. Its surface might have a shiny patina to it; its interior will be flecked with embedded squid beaks, like burnt black seeds. It smells pungently and, as it evolves, it undergoes another transformation: the fecal smell that characterizes freshly expelled ambergris gradually softens at sea and is replaced by a rich complex odor described variously as sweet, woody, earthy, and marine.
“Unique, illusive of precise description,” wrote Robert Clarke, “the odour of ambergris has been said to suggest ?ne tobacco, the wood in old churches, sandalwood, the smell of the tide, fresh earth, and fresh seaweed in the sun. I myself am reminded of Brazil nuts.” In an 1844 article in the American Journal of Pharmacy, it was said to have a “smell somewhat resembling old cowdung.” An article in the New York Times from 1895, titled “Ambergris, the Whale Fisher’s Prize,” described its odor as being “like the blending of new–mown hay, the damp woodsy fragrance of a fern–copse, and the faintest possible perfume of the violet.”
Whether it smells of churches, Brazil nuts, a fern copse, or all of these, it is a sought–after component of perfumes and is sold by the gram in little pebble–size pieces to independent perfumers or in bulk to those who can afford it. It is peddled in the dusty souks by herbalists in Morocco and Cairo, where it is an aphrodisiac and stirred by the teaspoon into cups of sweetened tea. Across the Middle East, it is used as incense in religious ceremonies. In China, it is eaten. Throughout history, it has been used as a medicine, as an ingredient in cooking, a component in fragrances, an adornment, a sign of wealth, an acknowledgment and celebration of the great dark unseen mystery of the ocean.
Weathered from its years spent adrift at sea, ambergris is one of the few physical manifestations of the sperm whale, an implausibly large mammal that spends most of its time miles beneath the ocean surface in complete darkness. Both literally and figuratively, any meaningful details of the journey a piece of ambergris has made are simply lost to the vastness of the deep ocean, which does not readily give up many of its secrets. The journey—which is physical, geographic, chemical,and transformative—cannot be replicated,and neither can its product. Ambergris has been synthesized, but its synthetic versions are not convincing. They lack an indefinable something that is gained only after years spent at sea. On completing its long journey, this nondescript sun–whitened pebble has been transformed into a prized commodity.
Back on Long Beach, I bend over to pick up another unidentified object from the sand. I examine it, smell it, and then pitch it over my shoulder, where it lands with the other rejected pieces of drift wood, seaweed, and lightweight volcanic rock. The rain is still falling. A screen of dark low thunderheads slides gracefully landward from the open sea and settles on top of the cliffs like a mantle. The tide is oceangoing. The water level drops quickly, leaving behind a fresh wet belt of flotsam that extends the length of the beach. I had read somewhere that the best time to find ambergris is immediately following a high tide—dumped by the receding waves, it sits proudly on the high–tide line, making it easily visible to anyone trying to find it. This is the time. I make sure my plastic bags are still in the pocket of my raincoat. Picking through the seaweed and driftwood, I make my way farther north, squinting into the rain. Half an hour later, I arrive at the northern end of the beach, wet and tired and empty–handed.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 8-16 of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)