Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

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!”

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