Rio History: From the Belly of a Whale

Special to the PRESS

When Kay and I had our Beachcombers Museum/Bookstore/Coffee shop we would have people from all walks of life stroll through our doors with many of them bearing gifts. Over the years we accumulated everything imaginable such as spiny oysters gathered from the legs of oil rigs, fossilized fish, mammoth elephant bones, and shells of all variety. We had a nice display of several dozen arrowheads, stone knives and other artifacts left behind by our pre-historic brothers who once called the Island home. One man even brought in a heavily corroded black powder pistol. But the one beachcombing treasure that eluded us for all those years was a nice piece of ambergris.

What is ambergris?

The word ambergris is derived from the French “amber gris” or grey amber.  The indigestible beaks of squid, favored food of sperm whales, irritate the digestive system, producing this raw waxy material that is then ejected by the whales.  After being vomited out, the dark substance turns to light gray and hardens as it matures.

Ambergris is often described as being musky and having a sweet earthy aroma or a mossy fragrance such as one will often find on a damp forest floor. Depending on the quality of the ambergris there can be a great variation in the fragrance. Poor quality or fresh ambergris (which is black and sticky) is very pungent, something along the lines of steaming cow patties gathering flies in the afternoon sun.

But this is only when the “product” is in its early stages and fresh from the intestines of a sperm whale.

As it cures, ambergris will lose its “poopy” smell and actually begins to develop a subtle, pleasant aroma. Sometimes washing ashore onto beaches after floating for years, it is highly valued for its unique fixative properties, especially by the perfume industry. In today’s market a “perfect” chunk of ambergris can bring several thousand dollars a pound!

In ancient pharmacopeias ambergris was touted to act directly on the hormonal system creating a seductive sense of smell.  Louis XV is said to have used ambergris to flavor his favorite dishes and Queen Elizabeth I used it to perfume her gloves.

With ambergris in high demand, greedy whalers went directly to the source of the “floating gold of the sea,” slaughtering even more sperm whales. Fortunately, with the decline of the whaling industry, synthesized compounds have helped fill the need for natural ambergris.

Most people are surprised to learn that there are about 1,800 sperm whales currently living in the Gulf of Mexico. Even though most of them are found off the coast of Louisiana, your chances of finding a rare piece of “ambergris” while beachcombing are not impossible at all.

Although in the United States, possession of any part of any endangered species, including ambergris that has washed ashore, is a violation of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, in reviewing the Definitions of The Act, section 3.2, refers to the term “commercial activity.” This means all activities of industry and trade, including, but not limited to, the buying or selling of commodities.

Even though one small lump of ambergris found on the beach could hardly be construed as the buying or selling of it, interpretation of such federal laws can be difficult.  Because of this, it’s always a good idea to check out the information described in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, if you believe you have found any item on the seashore that may be in question.

Happy beach combing and be sure to send me photos of your beach finds.

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