Ambergris – A fatty substance formed in the intestinal tract of sperm whales

Whaling Sketch, Gordon Grant Collection. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z.
Whaling Sketch, Gordon Grant Collection. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z.

Ambergris by Clive Morriss

Ambergris! What’s this ambergris? Well, it comes from the sea and you boaties and sea shore fishermen might be bypassing a fortune as you skim through the waves or walk along the beach! The encyclopedia describes it as ”a fatty substance formed in the intestinal tract of only sperm whales and serves as protection from the horny indigestible portions of the squid and cuttlefish that constitute much of the whales’ diet”.

Irritated by the sharp beaks of the squid and the other material a dark resinous mass builds up in the stomach of the whale. This becomes squeezed into a bolus in the intestine where it picks up more squid beaks and detritus.

Some of the lumps may be excreted at a later stage. Fresh ambergris is soft and black and has an offensive odour, it hardens into a pleasantly fragrant grey or yellow mass when exposed to the air, sun and sea. Being lighter than water, it is found floating on the sea or cast up on shores adjacent to the sperm whale migrating routes.

Ambergris has been known and highly prized since the ninth century, but its origin was not known until the 1700s. Over the whaling years, it was gathered from the abdomens of the slaughtered sperm whales but only about 2 per cent of the captured mammals had any ambergris in their gut.

In 1912 a lump weighing 450kg was taken and it was sold for $46,000, saving the owner of the whaling company from bankruptcy.

The whaling ship Splendid, at Port Chalmers. De Maus, David Alexander, 1847-1925 :Shipping negatives. Ref: 1/2-016340-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22336328
The whaling ship Splendid, at Port Chalmers. De Maus, David Alexander, 1847-1925 :Shipping negatives. Ref: 1/2-016340-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22336328

In 1847 it was reported in Hobart that 250 pounds was found in a Hawkes Bay whale. A Dunedin whaleship, “Splendid”, which worked in the sperm whaling ground between Stewart and Campbell Islands captured a whale that when landed at Port Chalmers was carrying a lump of ambergris which weighed 1400 pounds. This was in 1812 and is reputed to be the world record find.

In 1954 a 240kg lump of ambergris was taken from a whale by the whaler, “Southern Harvester”. It was reported that the whale was extremely healthy and well-fed, which dispelled the theory that ambergris only came from sick sperm whales.

These large finds were exceptional. It is recorded that only 1668 pounds of “amber grease” was brought back by the whole of the American whaling fleet between 1836 and 1880.

At the turn of the 20th century, the price of ambergris was the same value as gold. It was used in medicines, to spice wines, as an aphrodisiac as well as being a base for perfumes, which was its main use.

Whaling Scene. Fenwick Collection. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z. Ambergris.
Whaling Scene. Fenwick Collection. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z.

Because of the decrease in whales and whaling, ambergris as a perfume base has been long replaced by synthetic substitutes.

But now to the point of this story. My working life was in the stock and station industry and in 1983 a client from the Chatham Islands sent some ambergris to be sold. It had been collected from the sea shore, many years before and was obviously of differing age. Some lumps were as big as a fist and resembled pumices and were quite crumbly in texture. Other pieces were darker coloured and pliable like putty.

We made extensive enquiries around the world, including Japan and London. Only one large International Trading Company showed any interest and offered to sell the ambergris “on consignment”. They could give no idea of the price. Our client gave authority to send the 2.5kg of ambergris to London to get the best price possible.

Several months later we were able to phone the client on the Chatham Islands to tell her we had been able to secure $5000 nett after allowing for airmail postage, insurance and commission. Our client was expecting perhaps $500 from the proceeds so she nearly ”fell off the perch” with delight.

With the knowledge from this sale, we solicited more of the product that might be available on the Chatham Islands and elsewhere. We published an article in our Company newsletter that circulated throughout New Zealand.

A lump of genuine ambergris.
A lump of genuine ambergris.

Then followed an interesting period of smelly parcels arriving on my desk with the office girls holding their noses. At this time I was in touch with Alan Baker of the National Museum of New Zealand and he helped to get doubtful samples identified and build on my limited knowledge. We received parcels of rotting marine sea sponges, fat, tallow, and other flotsam and jetsam from people hoping they had found their gold mine.

We ascertained the best way to identify ambergris was to hold a lighted match close and it would melt giving off a very distinctive smell. Some lumps had squid beaks protruding from them.

Very few parcels were in fact ambergris. However one of 4,151 grams sold for $13,749.92 nett, $3.31 gram, – another of 290 grams sold for $3.49 gram.

One client who sent a parcel from Taranaki had farmed on the Chatham Islands prior to the 1940s and his dog was able to smell and find the ambergris on the beach.

Product and interest then dwindled until November 1985 when I was made aware of an article in the Sunday News. In answer to a correspondent the editor had written that ambergris was, “virtually worthless”. I wrote to the newspaper and they printed my article which indicated the prices we had been able to secure. This resulted in another deluge of smelly parcels and nose holding staff.

Again most consignments were not ambergris but some clients, “hit the jackpot”.

Most of the ambergris we traded had originated from the Chatham Islands but some also came from 90 Mile Beach and Kaitaia.

In 1986 my wife and I were on tour through France and visited the Grasse Perfume Factory in Nice. They indicated they would be very interested to purchase ambergris. Any consignments they bought would have been used for special high priced products for a limited clientele. Regrettably, I was unable to secure any more ambergris.

Time and tide have now passed but I still recall with pleasure the arrival of those parcels and the anticipation and expectation of our clients as they awaited the fateful verdict, and if it was ambergris our long wait to hear back from London with the price they would receive.

More articles by Clive Morriss:

50 Years of Salmon Fishing by Clive Morriss – bamboo rods, bakelite reels

How to Catch Salmon – Tips to maximize your chances on the river

The Monster of Lake Coleridge by Clive Morriss – Delightful Memories

70 Years of Salmon Fishing Memories – Old Photographs of Big Salmon

Whaling Sketch, Gordon Grant Sketch. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z. Ambergris.
Whaling Sketch, Gordon Grant Sketch. Reproduced by permission of Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, N.Z.