Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

And so the matter rests, except that female sperm whales have since proved to share the honor with their larger mates. Encyclopedic works of much later date than the note of Doctor Boylston still continued to publish nonsense about a “fossil bitumen or nephtha, exuding out of the bowels of the earth in a fluid form and distilling into the sea, where it hardens and floats,” but few have been misled. In the light of modern knowledge, which appears to be none too exact on the subject, ambergris is regarded as a morbid secretion of the liver or intestines of the sperm whale. Whalemen have long agreed that it is the sick whales that yield the prize, and the legion of books on maritime adventure, credible and incredible, unite in stating that emaciated whales, capable of supplying a minimum of oil, were nevertheless greeted with a warm welcome and a ready lance by the Yankee blubber-hunters, on the slim chance that the victim might more than make up from his in’ards what he lacked in his skin.

Out at Provincetown, on the hooked tip of Cape Cod, my late friend Captain D. C. Stull spent most of a long lifetime engaged in the stimulating vocation of a purchaser and wholesaler of ambergris and of porpoise-jaw oil. From the latter is refined the delicate lubricant for watches and chronometers. Whenever a herd of blackfish stranded anywhere along the northeastern coast of the United States, Captain Stull, who walked with a limp but who covered the ground more rapidly than most of mankind, was apt to be the first practical man on the spot, prepared to buy the animals for cash from fishermen or townships, and undertaking to tow all the objectionable carcasses safely out to sea as soon as he had removed the rich blubber of “junk and jaw,” these being the only parts that yield the fine oil. In like manner, if a New Bedford whaler reported to her owners a haul of ambergris, Captain Stull would at once open negotiations, and would be waiting at the dock when the ship came home. Equally ready was he to deal with possibly lucky beachcombers of the sort mentioned at the beginning of my story, and his experiences in receiving bits of all the worthless substances that are buoyant in salt water were, naturally, far more diverse than my own. Most such he treated with a chuckle, and the untrustful reactions of persons who impugned his motives in telling them the bitter truth about their discoveries, only added to his good-natured merriment. After all, the chap who appears with “genuine ambergris,” whether pre-war or not, is to be received with only slightly more credulity than the inventor of a perpetual-motion machine. In either case the burden of proof is squarely up to the seller.

And so although watch-oil was his staple, Captain Stull obtained and disposed of a considerable quantity of ambergris during the course of several decades. The marketing was his own business secret. Because of the relatively minute amount of the extract required by all the perfume manufacturers of the world, the ambergris exchange has its own curious technique. Like the stock exchange, it is subject to more or less unpredictable fluctuations. A large catch may cause a glut, with a corresponding drop in the current price. Therefore it does not always pay to find, or to admit ownership of, too much; you may get more for less. While Captain Stull was ever ready to buy, he did not always choose to sell, and how much of the strange material he may have had stowed away in his strong-box, nobody but he was in a position to know.

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?

I need no wealth, and for my health I feel no foolish fears: I keep the rules we get in schools And live a thousand years

sings the leviathan in an old ditty, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Other relics of whale banquets impacted in Captain Stull’s samples were confined to the horny and indigestible beaks of squids or cuttle-fish, and to fragments of the internal shell or pen (what the canary bird eats) of the same creatures. Squids are ordinarily regarded as the exclusive food of the sperm whale, and their remains were the objects that originally gave a clue to the true source of ambergris. However, the ferocious potentialities of an aroused sperm whale have often been displayed to whalemen, and we now know that at least one After the bits of squid beak had been picked out of the lots of ambergris that passed through my hands, the residue was an ash-colored or darker substance which softened in the heat of the palm, and melted, below the boiling point of water, into a yellowish fluid resin. of the ocean-ranging monsters has strayed from the prescribed diet. An animal which could engulf a West Indian seal would have had no difficulty in taking in Jonah.

After the bits of squid beak had been picked out of the lots of ambergris that passed through my hands, the residue was an ash-colored or darker substance which softened in the heat of the palm, and melted, below the boiling point of water, into a yellowish fluid resin. At higher temperatures it volatilized into white vapor. “The dry lumps became electrified when they were rubbed slightly, so that they acted as magnets to re-attract all the squid beak that had been separated from them.”

The French term ambre-gris (gray amber) was first applied to distinguish the material from ambre-jaune, yellow or true amber. The respective animal and vegetable origins of the two were discovered only within modern times, whereas both were immemorially known as stuffs cast up by the sea. Ambergris is an opaque, waxy, laminated solid, having an odor suggestive of musk or benzoin. (Benzoic acid, one of its components, also gives the tart taste to cranberries). The aroma is as subtly pleasing to the majority of human beings as catnip is to all feline creatures, from tabbies to tigers. Yet, strange to say, it is decidedly offensive to a few persons, and this without regard to the strength or purity of the solution.

Analyses of ambergris show that it contains a mixture, of organic and inorganic substances. Among the latter are sodium chloride (ordinary salt), and phosphate of lime (perhaps derived from the hard parts of squids). The organic substances include alkaloids, acids, and ambrein. The last, which is its most characteristic constituent, is a peculiar fatlike compound, closely related to cholesterin. Since cholesterin is found in bile, the secretion of the gall-bladder, it may simplify our comprehension of ambergris to regard it as something related to gall-stones. The product so valuable to us may, therefore, be highly undesirable to the whale.

The formula of ambrein has been determined as C23H40O. It is said to make up from one-fourth to more than four-fifths of the bulk of ambergris, yet it does not contain the whole secret, for although ambrein, in the pure form of white crystals, has a delightful odor, it will not of itself suffice in the manufacture of perfumes. Chemists believe that the unique properties of ambergris are due The French term ambre-gris (gray amber) was first applied to distinguish the material from ambre-jaune, yellow or true amber. The respective animal and vegetable origins of the two were discovered only within modern times, whereas both were immemorially known as stuffs cast up by the sea. to the presence with ambrein of a benzoic ester which, in their parlance, is a compound ether made up of alcohol and acid radicles. (Aspirin is a familiar example of an ester.) Since ambrein is separated out by hot ethyl alcohol, the perfumers avoid this dissociation by dissolving the natural product in cold alcohol.

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