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 other day an attendant led into the ornithological sanctum a well-pleased youth carrying a large package, the contents of which he (the attendant) had sized up as the head of a bird. A monstrous beak did, indeed, protrude through the wrappings, but a loosening of the string disclosed the bleached, toothless, and weather-worn skull of a porpoise, picked up on the sands of the seashore.
“Very interesting,” the ornithologist probably said, politely; “the skeleton of the forward end of Tursiops truncatus—no doubt one that died—and the curator of mammals is just across the hall!”
But proceedings are not always so simple and overt. Telephone calls of a confidential nature may foreshadow the visit of the man with the dark secret. Letters of cryptic wording fail to reveal the precise nature of the what-is-it. Communications come from the possessor of the only nest and eggs of a humming bird ever found, or from the granddaughter of a clipper ship captain who has inherited the stuffed body of a bona fide mermaid of the China Sea. Such items are to be made the basis of transactions which will cost a tidy sum, but which will put the Museum definitely on the map.
While such opportunities come almost daily, it would be unfair to imply that even a tenth of the museum-minded public is self-seeking; on the contrary, the precious objects freely offered, 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. declined with thanks, and carried away each year by their disillusioned owners would fill and sink the imaginary “Mayflower” that transported all the Colonial furniture to this continent.
Now of all the things presented for the inspection of that faithful servant of the public, the museum curator, the most romantic, and the least likely to be true, is ambergris. I say inspection, because identification is preconceived in the mind of the finder. His treasure, stumbled upon along the sea beach, recognized with the sudden surmise that dawns like knowledge from a previous incarnation, is encountered where ambergris belongs; it looks, and feels, and smells as ambergris should and, since it bears no resemblance to anything familiar, it follows that riches are already within his grasp.
However, confirmation is the capstone to personal certainty. “Some funny old cove at the Museum,” the finder reasons, “will know all about it. Moreover, such a practical thought as trying to horn in on my profits would never enter his head. Those museum birds don’t care about money, anyway. It will be a good idea to have it settled scientifically before I see the man who buys the stuff for Coty.”
During twenty years of museum work, the ambergris man or woman has sought me out approximately forty times. It is a pity that I neglected to make a record of each circumstance, because many details have slipped my mind. At any rate, if there were forty seekers, thirty-nine were doomed to disappointment. Of the lucky one, more later. As hinted above, the approach was frequently indirect.
“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! 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.
[pagebreak]From time immemorial, ambergris has had a fabulous value and, although its ancient uses have with one exception dropped away, it has not, like the bezoar stone or the alchemist’s formula, ceased to be prized by the practical moderns. Ages before its true source was even remotely suspected, it was an important article of trade and a component of cosmetics, medicines, and love potions. Doubtless the exquisite vanity cases of Chaldean queens, recently unearthed and advertised throughout the world, were at one time filled with a derivative of ambergris. When, therefore, we see the contemporary lady of our delight spraying her frock with a mist of Muguet, we can appreciate also the eternal verity in the line of the flippant archaeological parodist:
I learned about women from Ur.
Ambergris and several of its supposed effects are mentioned in some of the tales of the Arabian Nights. The European attitude toward the commodity during the Middle Ages is well indicated in a text published as late as 1691, the Pharmacopoeia Londonensis. The learned author of this treatise on the “Art of Healing and Praxis of Chymistry” tells us that
It is a marine Sulphur, found at the Sea-shore, chiefly in the Indies, which breaks from Fountains and Caverns of the Sea. It is gray, sweet and smooth; pricked with a needle it sweats out fatness, softens in the heat, and when moist appears black.... It is hot and dry, an excellent Corroborative; it is discutient, resolutive, alexipharmic, and analeptic; it strengthens the heart and brain, revives and recreates the spirits natural, vital, and animal. Its sweet Sulphur is an excellent Perfume; it is a good preservative against the Plague, and preserves the Spirits from infection.
This is followed by directions for the preparation of sundry horrible essences, through the mixture of ambergris, musk, and civet, which are to be sealed up in a vessel hermetically, and digested for forty days. The ripened blend, we are informed, perfumes forever what it touches, eases the headache, takes away defluxions from the eyes, comforts cold and aged people, prevents apoplexy and epilepsy, strengthens all parts of the body, and causes fruitfulness. In short, to the ailing individual of that day, ambergris was good for what you’ve got!
Earlier than the date of this profound book, apparently, the correct origin of ambergris had become at least suspected, for in the year 1672 an Englishman revealed the pertinent contents of a manuscript which had been found on board a captured Dutch East Indiaman. This document stated that
Ambergris is not the scum or excrement of a whale, but issues out of the root of a tree, which tree, howsoever it stands on the land, alwaies shoots forth its roots towards the sea, seeking the warmth of it thereby to deliver the fattest gum that comes out of it, which tree otherwise by its copious fatness might be burnt and destroyed; wherever that fat gum is shot into the sea, it is so tough that it is not easily broken from the root, unless its own weight and the working of the warm sea doth it, and so it floats on the sea.... If you plant the trees where the stream sets to the shore, then the stream will cast it up to great advantage.
Layoff hunting for ambergris, boys; all you need to find is the ambergris tree!
When it became more and more evident that ambergris was, after all, indubitably found in the inside of a whale, the die-hards trumped up another explanation. Faced with the stern facts, they assumed that the sperm whale was a hunter, rather than a manufacturer, of ambergris, and that he swam merrily about the broad ocean, gobbling up the treasure wherever he could located it. In 1686, Dr. Thomas Brown wrote, in his description of a sperm whale cast upon the coast of Norfolk:
In vain it was to rake for ambergriese in the paunch of this leviathan, as Greenland discoverers, and attests of experience dictate, that they sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the sea.
It remained for the empirical Quaker whalemen of Nantucket to settle the question beyond doubt, as related by Doctor Boylston, a surgeon of Boston, about the end of the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Reports the doctor:
“The most learned part of mankind are still at a loss about many things even in medical use, and particularly were so in what is called ambergris, until our fishermen of Nantucket, in New England, some three or four years past made the discovery. Their account to me is as follows:—cutting up a spermaceti bull-whale, they found accidently in him about twenty pounds weight, more or less, of that drug; after which, they and other such fishermen became very curious in searching all such whales they killed, and it has been since found in lesser quantities in several male whales of that kind, and in no other, and that scarcely in one of a hundred of them.”
[pagebreak]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.
It is common talk among dealers in perfumers’ ingredients that ambergris possesses fixative qualities, that is, that it endows associated blossom odors in tinctures with a greater degree of permanence than they would otherwise have. The best conclusion drawn from much experiment, however, is that it really exerts no appreciable influence of the sort, but that it merely “prolongs a certain note” due only to its agreeable and lasting bouquet. In other words, its real purpose may be said to be that of hoodwinking the olfactory sense of perfume users. After the delicate breath of roses or lilies of the valley has entirely evanesced, the exhalation of ambergris still remains, and possesses abundant charm of its own to compensate for whatever has been lost, or, perhaps, to prevent a realization that anything has been lost.
In the western world the use of ambergris in fine perfumes is the sole remaining reason for its high value, but in the Orient it is still prized for the spicing of wines and other ancient purposes. The Malays and the Chinese buy it eagerly, and the latter test its purity by scraping a trifle into boiling tea, in which it should dissolve completely, without leaving a fatty film.
Despite all that has been learned about ambergris, there seems to be no abso1ute chemical or microscopic test for identifying it. It is to be judged in the manner of a connoisseur grading wines, by recognition of general appearance, bouquet, etc., rather than by rigid scientific standards. Even the squid beaks might not serve to distinguish it from other matter from a whale’s insides and, moreover, these markers have been fraudulently mixed into tallow or tree-gum on more occasions than one! Experienced perfumers are, nevertheless, not deceived by natural or artificial imitations. When a specimen is shaved into cold alcohol in the proportion of about four ounces of the substance to a gallon of fluid, the odor is so characteristic, to one who has previous1y experienced it, that all doubt is dispelled. The mixture will stand a very large dilution, and when a little is added to rich perfumes it never fails to give a definite and appealing tang.
Black ambergris, occasionally found in whales, is believed to take its undesirable color from the sepia or ink of squids, the secretion that these free-swimming mollusks eject into the water to make a “smoke-screen” about themselves upon the approach of danger. Long immersion in the ocean washes the dark pigment out of the ambergris, leaving the gray residue with its chemical properties unaltered. When pure, its specific gravity is never far from 0.90, so it is light enough to float buoyantly in either fresh or salt water, in which it cannot decay.
Part II (appeared in the May-June 1933 issue of Natural History)
But what of the actual value of ambergris in the open market? This, as hinted in part I, ranges rather widely, in tune with the law of supply and demand but, in general, high grade lots fetch from $14 to $20 an ounce. If you are lucky, therefore, your find may be literally worth its weight in gold. In 1898 a London merchant had a lump weighing 270 pounds, which was sold in Paris for 85 shillings per ounce, or £18,360. A copy of the Boston Ledger of the year 1859 records the largest known haul—a lump weighing 750 pounds, all taken from one whale by the crew of a Nantucket ship. The account goes on to say that the largest quantity known to have come from a single whale up to that date weighed 182 pounds. Since that time amounts varying between 60 and 200 pounds in weight have been taken from the carcass of one whale, or have been salvaged in the form of single concretions on the sea or shore. The total production in the United States during the last year for which I can find data (1922) was 44 pounds. This was all landed at New Bedford, and brought only $11,000.
Fine ambergris in the form of flotsam has come into the trade, as well as that “untimely ripped” from whales, but as to whether the floating supply has been discharged by living carriers, or has survived the decomposition of dead whales, 1ater to be buoyantly resurrected from the depths of the sea, we have no means of knowing. The Bahamas are a famous collecting ground on the American side of the Atlantic, and it is significant that the pilot charts show no less than three “Ambergris Cays” in the romantic waters of the Spanish Main.
The early history of Bermuda is also bound up with an ambergris yarn. When Richard More, the first governor, arrived in 1612, he found that three shipwrecked mariners had concealed a large quantity of drift ambergris in lumps weighing fifty pounds or more, which they had plotted to transport secretly to England. The governor seized the treasure in the name of the Virginia Company and the ambitious sailormen all but came to the gallows. The record contains the following warning to His Majesty’s representatives:
As touchinge the findinge of Ambergreece upon the shore which is driven up by every storme where the wind bloweth, we would have you remember that by such as you appointe to that business, you may be deceaved of the best and fayrest except you be very carefull in your choice of honest men.
Strange stories of finds, some apocryphal and some with a basis of truth, have been set down in countless scattered publications. One tells of a chunk of ambergris that during many years formed part of a flower-covered rockery in a New Zealand farmer’s garden. When the nature of the “rock” was discovered, it sold for four pounds five shillings per ounce. In Barbados, so runs another circumstantial yarn, a market-bound black girl lowered a basket of live poultry from her head, and sat down to rest upon a rock on the beach. She presently found that her cotton dress had stuck dismally to the rock. An apothecary learned of the incident and garnered a block of the best gray ambergris weighing 1400 ounces, which brought him five pounds ten shillings per ounce. Similar tales have come to my attention from Japan, Hawaii, Madagascar, Morocco, Brazil, Ireland, and the Persian Gulf. Finding ambergris is almost in the nature of an ethnic tradition!
[pagebreak] Because of the fanciful nature of most of the yarns about drift ambergris, modern chemists and dealers are even more skeptical than is warranted by the extreme rarity of finds. Some go so far as to say that the substance has never been discovered anywhere except in the bowels of a sperm whale. The best answer to this is the fact that ambergris was valued and trafficked in centuries before man had captured, pictured, or even become acquainted with the sperm whale. Ambergris is an ancient treasure; its source is relatively new knowledge. It may well be that most of the free supply is long since exhausted; it is certainly true that practically all the contemporary finds prove to be false alarms. Yet I hold that there is still justification for keeping a weather eye open.
In view of the marvelous accomplishments of modern chemistry, it is to be wondered at that no enterprising worker in a perfumer’s laboratory has yet solved the fundamental problem, as has already been done with regard to musk and otto of rose. If a synthetic ambergris should be devised, the bottom would at once drop out of the market for the natural product. My humble suggestion to anyone with ambitions in this direction is to go back of the whale and start experiments upon the fat contained in the bodies of the abundant squids, octopuses, or other mollusks of the group that zoölogists call cephalopods. Here, beyond a doubt, the ore of the floating gold must lie. Squids are excellent human food, as you may find out for yourself in the Spanish or Italian restaurants of American cities, but as to whether our own digestive juices turn any part of them into a silver or golden lining we hardly stop to consider.
Unimaginable numbers of squids, which occur in practically all parts of the oceans, are devoured by sperm whales. The certainty of this is, of course, obvious from the bulk of the mighty foragers and the size and number of the schools engaged in an unceasing quest for food throughout all the warmer sea waters of the globe. It was indelibly While we watched its dying struggles at close range, the beast began to belch up squids. Barrelful after barrelful of the tentacled creatures, some but freshly swallowed, others in advanced stages of disintegration, floated to the surface all about our boat. impressed upon my mind, however, by an incident witnessed during a South Atlantic cruise in the old New Bedford whaling brig “Daisy.” I manned stroke oar in the mate’s boat, and on one occasion our harpooner made fast to a medium-sized sperm whale, perhaps thirty-five feet in length, which showed very little fight, and which we overtook soon after the iron had been planted. The first pricks of the terrible lance, thrust and “churned” by the mate, evidently found its life, for the whale went immediately into a flurry, swimming desperately around the boat, and rolling over and over so that the line encircled it many times. Then, while we watched its dying struggles at close range, the beast began to belch up squids. Barrelful after barrelful of the tentacled creatures, some but freshly swallowed, others in advanced stages of disintegration, floated to the surface all about our boat. Most of them seemed to have bodies a foot and a half or two feet long, but some were larger. By the time the whale floated fin-out and lay still, the slimy carcasses and fragments of squids covered the space of an acre or more.
Eleven months in the “Daisy,” and participation in the exciting slaughter and subsequent butchery of twenty-seven sperm whales, never brought me, alas, the thrill that may not come even once in a lifetime—a find of native ambergris. The search was made in every whale, as the final stage of the cutting-in, but it seemed to be a half-hearted effort, the expression of a forlorn hope, much as though you should scan the gutter along twenty blocks of Broadway in a deliberate, cold-blooded hunt for a five-dollar bill that somebody might have lost.
I remember particularly one vast but scrawny bull, the blubber of which contained much less oil than his size had promised. If the tradition of the sea is correct, he was a typical “ambergris fish.” The cutting-in went on from mid-afternoon until well into the night. The “Daisy,” with topsails aback, rolled gently in the quiet swell of a tropical evening, while the officers on the cutting stage punched with their spades as best they could in the dim light of lanterns and oil-soaked torches. The flickering glare showed the indistinct hulk of the whale alongside, and the flash of bloody wavelets beyond. On deck a cresset of burning blubber-scrap, and the fiery chimneys of the try-works in full blast, cast enough illumination to reveal the great blankets of blubber and the greasy, toiling figures scurrying about amid the shouting of orders, the creak of tackles, and the clank of chains. At six bells the last strip came over the plank-sheer. The severed head floated by the starboard quarter, lashed securely and ready to be handled at daybreak. Only the rite of the whaleman’s ultimate hope remained to be carried out before the flensed carcass should be cut adrift.
The Old Man joined his officers on the cutting stage. Then, with methodical movements, he and the three mates thrust freshly sharpened cutting-spades deeply into the guts of the whale, twisted them, cautiously withdrew them, smelled the bright steel blades, and scrutinized them painstakingly in the light of a lantern, while the crew looked on in fevered anticipation. Back and forth along the stage the four men trod and jabbed, until the vitals had been intimately explored. But nary a whiff of the longed-for odor was forthcoming, and so to bed.
My hard old skipper, God rest him, was part owner in another vessel engaged in sperm whaling during the same period, and this craft, the schooner “Whyland,” took nineteen pounds of ambergris off the coast of Africa. When we on the “Daisy” learned the glad tidings from a third whaler, at Barbados, the Old Man expressed himself characteristically.
“Very Poor quality,” he announced; “black, and full of impurities.”
I am morally certain that he also wrote post-haste to his agents in New Bedford, belittling the whole matter and minimizing the amount. Inflation of stock is the wrong tendency in the ambergris game, and Captain Ben Cleveland was a past master at doing just the opposite. Subsequently, when both the “Daisy” and the “Whyland” had moored in the home port, ten pounds of good ambergris were advertised and disposed of. About a year later, nine additional pounds were sold, to the compounded benefit of the owners and the fortunate crew. Catching your ambergris is really only half the trick.
In Part I of this article, I remarked that of forty prospectors who have done me the honor to seek me as a gratuitous consulting expert, thirty-nine were duds. 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!”