Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

“I have been told that you are the leading authority on whales,” ingratiatingly writes a lady from a neighboring city. “Have you at the museum an example of ambergris in its crude state, as found on beaches? What is its general form and appearance, and is there any way that one can distinguish it positively from everything else?”

This is enough to assure me that the writer, or perhaps an imaginative boy in her family, has brought home some spoils, and whether I am to see them or not depends upon my response.

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?

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.”

The caller looks even more sheepish than before.

“Of course, I didn’t suppose it was the real stuff,” he explains, “but, all the same, ambergris is worth watching for if you happen to be along the beach.”

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.

Yet why cavil at such an appealing human interest, for who of us is above it? 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. Scarcely a season passes but what a more or less truthful account of an actual find appears on the front pages of the metropolitan press. A characteristic example is the following:

SEA GULLS GUIDE SAILOR TO $12,500 AMBERGRIS CAPE MAY, N. J., JULY 19.—Jeremiah Pratt was on watch last night on the deck of the Gloucester schooner “Mary Ann” when the clamor of sea gulls drew his attention to a cluster of the birds, vaguely visible ahead as they fought over a prize.

As the schooner overhauled the gulls, Pratt leaned over the rail with a boathook and retrieved their spoil, which proved to be a lump of ambergris, weighing twenty-eight pounds 2 ounces. The schooner was about fifteen miles off shore at the time. Pratt said that a New York perfumer had offered him $12,500 for his find and that he intended to sell it, buy a poultry farm and retire from the sea.

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