A LIFETIME of searching for ambergris, and in the end I found it by mistake. My friend Bob had told me his father used to whittle the stalks of big pieces of kelp to make cricket balls so when I saw an oval piece of grey-pink kelp on an East Gippsland beach last week, I picked it up, thinking nature had done half the work.
It even felt rubbery – a bit of bounce but not too much. I would take it back for Bob to whittle off the pointy bit and there would be his cricket ball.
I had a couple of kilometres to walk back to the car with this lump of kelp in my hand. As I walked I started to wonder what the foul smell was. Whatever it was, I didn’t seem to be leaving it behind. I checked the soles of my shoes to see what I’d trodden in. Nothing. Then I lifted the cricket ball to my nose. Phew!
Back at the car I put the cricket ball in a plastic bag and tried to wash the smell off my hands with water. Nothing doing. As I drove back to where I was staying with friends, the car was filling with the stink of the cricket ball and my head was filling with another faint possibility: ambergris.
I spent my childhood looking for ambergris, or whale sick. We all did. My mother had read an article about a man who had found some on a beach in New Zealand and sold it for enough to buy a small house. Ambergris was very rare, smelt divine and was used to make perfumes.
In our family, we were always interested in ways of making lots of money without actually working. Of course, this was PG (pre-google), and we had no idea what whale sick looked like. We trusted we would know it by its divine smell. All through the 1960s and 1970s little Watsons could be seen, heads bent, picking up bits of flotsam and jetsam off the beach and sniffing them for the whiff of money.
We found lots of things that smelt disgusting but nothing that smelt divine, but I never stopped looking. More recently, with the internet, I’ve learned that ambergris generally doesn’t smell divine at all. The smell is variously described as earthy, disgusting, rancid, faecal … a lot depends on its age.
Back at the house, like Lady Macbeth, I scrubbed and scrubbed but couldn’t the smell off my hands. Camilla, who could smell me from across the room, suggested lemon juice, and that worked or I would have had to sleep outside,
The next day I googled images of ambergris. It comes in many shapes and many colours, I learned on a French ambergris buyer’s website, and suddenly there it was on the screen: a classic egg shape, a cricket ball with a pointy end. Even the pink-grey colour was the same as mine.
I was shocked. All those years we were sniffing the flotsam for ambergris it was just a family joke. This was like winning Wimbledon by accident.
I read further: “To some people the odour is nauseous while to others it is attractive and even sensuous. There is certainly an animalic component, reminiscent of farm animals, or even a faecal note, perhaps like that of a well-rotted manure heap. There can also be a strong marine note like the smell of seaweed on a beach. Once you have smelt it you will not forget it. Over time, the odour becomes softer and more ‘perfumistic’ while still preserving its marked animal characteristics.”
Only sperm whales produce ambergris, apparently, and then only a very small proportion of them, hence its rarity. It usually contains small squid “beaks”. Some scientists believe the beaks irritate the intenstine of the whale and it forms a protective lining, the ambergris, around the mass to protect itself. Eventually the whale vomits it up and off it (the ambergris) goes floating around the world, driven by wind and tides until it hits rocks or a beach. Then it’s either found – probably very rarely – or sucked back into sea until it breaks up and dissipates.
I read that the egg-shaped ambergris – my cricket ball with a pointy end – is known as a “kidney”, that often a large piece of ambergris contains several kidneys joined by ambergris.
My friends, although sceptical, were beginning to be a little bit interested. I thought we should go back to the beach and look for more, but first we should discuss how we were going to spend the money. Liz said she’d get a chauffeur to drive her at night. I decided I’d go first class everywhere, even to the Wonthaggi cinema.
Now it was time to get down to business. I typed in “ambergris … sell … Australia” and suddenly things were a little more complicated. Google had all these hard luck stories about people who’d found huge lumps of ambergris – or thought they had; most ambergris finds turn out to be something else – and should have been rich. Instead, a stern governmental notice advised, they should hand their find over to their state environmental department because as a signatory to the international convention on whaling, Australia bans dealing in any whale products.
It’s one of the few countries around the world to include ambergris in the ban, apparently to stop people going out and butchering whales, then slitting open their intestines to get the contents.
Of all the places in all the world, my piece of ambergris had to land on an Australian beach!
That night, as I was gingerly packing my “kidney” for Liz to take home – I was travelling on and didn’t want to cart the pongy thing on my trip – I caught a whiff of something musky and sensuous. It might have been the power of suggestion but it was starting to smell very Chanel-like.
Now I’m left with a moral dilemma. Should I hand my find over to the Department of Sustainability and Environment? If I do, what will they do with it?
And one practical question: how can I smuggle my ambergris to New Zealand or France without being arrested?
Perhaps have it vacuum packed and that may seal in the smell. Then carry in your hand luggage.
Find a yachtie on his/her way to New Zealand and dispatch it that way.
No way! Don't hand it over to the environment department.