Whale vomit in history



  • Peter Kaminski
For this week's Key Ingredient, mixologist Charles Joly of the Drawing Room faced off against ambergris—the aromatic, waxy substance produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales and historically used for perfume, among other things. I'd never heard of it before, which my coworkers pointed out was probably because I'd never made it through Moby-Dick in my freshman-year literature class. There's an entire chapter devoted to the stuff, immediately following the one in which the whalers come across a French ship that has claimed two pungent whale carcasses; Stubb tricks the Frenchmen into surrendering one that he hopes will yield ambergris (it was valuable back then, too, "worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist"). He's rewarded with "some six handfulls."

In the next chapter, ambergris is described as "soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum." Melville continues:

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks.

It's a substance that has fascinated people for centuries, owing in part to its value and in part to the mystery (for most of history) behind where it came from. At one point in the 17th century, there was a theory that ambergris came from the roots of a certain tree. Joly read that it was believed to attract mermaids, and I've seen references to it preventing or curing everything from the plague to epilepsy. While researching ambergris for Key Ingredient, I also came across a lengthy essay by museum naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy titled Floating Gold: The Romance of Ambergris, first published in a 1933 issue of Natural History Magazine. The first paragraph sold me:

The career of a museum naturalist is sometimes regarded as a dusty one, but among its amenities are the unforeseen calls of interested, curious, inquisitive, mysterious, or merely crack-brained individuals, who, by one pretext or another, find their way into his laboratory with something to be identified. A preliminary sifting out by the man at the information desk usually staves off the bearer of a rock crystal from disturbing the curator of insects, or the proud owner of a hippopotamus tooth from barging into the department of Peruvian archaeology. However, there is no dependable bulwark against surprises.

The entire thing is worth a read, but below are some of my favorite passages, including a description of one of the aforementioned individuals who arrives with something to be identified.

Once a shabbily dressed man came to ask me whether it was possible nowadays to get a job on a whaleship. Long experience with the Treasure Island complex convinced me immediately that this visitor had no intention of going whaling. I answered his questions noncommittally, and let him do the talking. He was soon attempting to discuss the products of whaling, but of the source and uses of oil or bone he had no more idea than William Tell’s son. Was there anything rare and valuable, he went on, that came from a whale? Spermaceti, I suggested. Maybe, but anything else?


Ambergris! That’s what he had been trying to think of. Does it come only out of a whale, or doesn’t it float around on the ocean? How many pounds of ambergris would be worth a million?

At this stage I abruptly invite him to produce his sample, and, with a sheepish grin, he fishes a bundle from his pocket. Inside the paper is a dingy handkerchief, and carefully wrapped in the latter a small, greenish-gray lump, more or less covered with sand.

“This has unquestionably been in the ocean,” I remark, “for a lake would have dissolved it”; and, after a moment’s scrutiny, I add, “it also came mostly from a whale. In fact, it is the remains of a bar of soap made from a little coconut oil and much whale oil.”

About half the ambergris brought to me has been soap, which dissolves only slowly in salt water, but wax, paint, tallow, blue mud, bits of decayed fish, water-logged wood, the residue of picnickers’ lunches, coke, clinkers, and many other substances have also figured. The opening of a garbage-disposal plant on Barren Island vastly increased the supply in the New York region. So, too, the era of oil-burning steamers has spread upon our beaches an unpleasant largess, some of which is of a form to excite cupidity. It is not always easy to determine just what my visitor has brought, but in such instances the rigmarole of Wealth has been gained through floating ambergris, not only on tropical shores but practically within sight of New York and San Francisco, and even northward toward the polar seas, far beyond the range of the warmth-loving sperm whale which is the only producer of the coveted substance. heating in a test-tube of grain alcohol, or of melting in a Bunsen flame, is ordinarily sufficient to convince the finder that his chances of making a quick fortune are even worse along the ocean front than in Wall Street.

Murphy later writes about a friend named Captain D.C. Stull, who was a buyer and wholesaler of ambergris and of porpoise-jaw oil. After describing Stull's business practices, he details how some ambergris samples his friend brought him for inspection led him to a discovery:

Captain Stull perhaps shared a belief in the general weak-minded honesty and total lack of worldliness accredited to professional naturalists, for he was remarkably generous in turning over to me liberal samples of his choicest commodity. In fact, I have driven away in my Ford from Provincetown with my pockets stuffed with small bottles containing a king’s ransom, all to be picked over at my convenience. Fresh ambergris, old ambergris, the best grade of gray, the poorest of black, ambergris that was mottled like marble, ambergris that looked like old cheese and smelt worse, ambergris that had the traditional fragrance of ploughed earth—it was all mine to handle and section, to examine under a microscope, and to return at my own will. My efforts resulted more in the verification of well known facts than in making startling new discoveries, but there was one conspicuous exception. In a sample from a sperm whale that had been killed off the south coast of Haiti during the year 1912, I found several bristles which were recognizable as the cheek-whiskers of a seal! Subsequent comparison with museum specimens showed that these belonged to the excessively rare, if not quite extinct, West Indian seal, an animal first met with by Columbus and long ago wiped out through most of its former range by insatiable hunters of oil and hides. Indeed, these whiskers from a whale’s intestines constitute, so far as I have been able to ascertain, the latest zoölogical record of this little known seal. How long had they been encased in the waxy, preserving matrix of their strange tomb? The answer is bound up with two other still unsolved problems, namely how long does a whale live and how long may ambergris continue in its alimentary tract?

At the beginning of his article, Murphy mentions that about 40 people have brought him something that they suspect may be ambergris for his inspection, and 39 have left disappointed. At the end, he describes the one lucky finder:

The other was a man from Alaska, a middle-aged, short, capable-looking chap, perhaps a mining engineer or something of the sort. His tiny sample looked right, and the lens and test-tube verified it. He said he had about thirty-five pounds more, and his story was a fantastic one, as befits the subject. Strolling along a beach near Nome on a Sunday afternoon, he had startled a wolf in the act of eating a large chunk of carrion at the water’s edge. The animal beat a retreat, with its belly sagging, and inspection of the material that it had left aroused enough suspicion in the mind of my caller to make him gather it up, say nothing, and lug it all the way to New York. He was so well prepared for what I told him that the verdict brought only a slight increment of satisfaction. I remarked that although some philologists held that the word ambergris came from the same root as ambrosia, the food of the gods on Mt. Olympus, there was no precedent that would justify its use as a diet for predatory carnivores! I advised the man what to do with his supply, neglecting to ask his name, and I have neither seen nor heard of him since.

“To think,” was his parting comment, “if I’d been ten minutes sooner that damned wolf wouldn’t have cost me a five-thousand-dollar meal!”

The latest documented case of shore strollers coming across an unexpected windfall is from 2006, when a couple discovered a 32-pound lump of ambergris on a beach in South Australia. While many news sources reported that it could be worth up to $300,000, no one seems to have followed up to see how much money the couple actually got for it.

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