One thousand metres beneath the sea, the sperm whales are feeding. The largest toothed predators on earth, they spiral 20 at a time through the black, aphotic depths, searching blind for the thousand kilograms of food they require each day. The squid they eat do not go quiet. Hundreds of them disappear into the whales’ preposterously narrow maws, some clinging with barbed tentacles, thrashing, tearing chunks of flesh and skin in a scene you might put on a t-shirt or get tattooed on your back.
In the gullet, their beaks begin a transformation into one of the most mysterious substances on Earth. At different times throughout history people have thought it to be dragons’ tears or meteorites. It’s been hunted with hound and camel, even smoked by the Aztec emperor Montezuma – it’s ambergris, floating gold, an olfactory miracle worth upwards of $10,000 a kilogram to the right buyer.
John Paice has walked Bethells Beach on Auckland’s west coast for almost 30 years. A slight character in green polyester, he speaks deliberately, savouring his words, and lives with his wife above the dunes where the salt spray doesn’t reach.
“We get all sorts of people out here,” he says. “Signalling UFOs and so on. The west coast attracts its fair share of eccentrics – either that or it turns people into eccentrics. My whole life I’ve moved west and when I got to Bethells I thought, I’m here. I’ve arrived.”
As he walks beneath the pōhutukawa, a pheasant takes off whack, whack, whack into the brush. Inside John’s shed a giant lathe rests beneath a blanket of wood dust, and the grille of an old Jeep lost in a fire sits on the wall. A twisted violin hangs from the roof, decorated with poetry and a pair of eyes. Beneath is a pile of semi-constructed guitars. And in John’s hands are two pieces of ambergris.
“It was the shortest day of the year, a miserable, stormy winter’s morning, and we were first on the beach,” he says. “It’s very rare to be first on the beach out here. But mine were the first footprints. I saw a rock that was out of place. I was very close to throwing it away, but instead I lifted it to my nose and smelt it, and I thought … ‘Intriguing’.”
One piece of ambergris looks like a crusty golf ball, with mottling like an old egg. Another resembles a chunk of crystalline coal, or glittering marijuana residue. It smells like cow shit, or an old horse blanket. And yet.
“Take a small piece and burn it on a spoon,” John says, holding a strand of wire in the flame of a Bic lighter. “Burn it until it's all ash, then use that spoon to stir your coffee. It enhances the flavour unimaginably.”
He takes the wire and lays it gently against the creamy ambergris. Smoke plumes and curls and spirals, leaving a shiny mark of tar seal or licorice.
“It smells…” he trails off. “Of the ocean.”
And it is. The stomach of a sperm whale is specialised into four chambers, similar to the rumin of an ungulate. When the squid arrives struggling and unchewed in the first chamber, it is crushed by a strong muscular wall that its toothed tentacles are unable to penetrate. The squashed squid is then passed into a second chamber full of digestive juices, where everything but the beak quickly breaks down. The chitinous beaks are harder than virtually any metal, so are generally vomited back into the ocean. But, in about one percent of cases, they slip further into the whale’s digestive system. During a journey through the 300m of intestine, the beaks are coated in protective secretions from the whale’s bile duct before eventually being expelled – as poo.
“Fresh ambergris is black, smelly, sticky, soft – more intense,” says Paice. “It’s just horrible, actually. My first thought was that the black stuff was from the bilge of a boat.”
But as ambergris floats at sea, battered by wind and sun and rain and the currents that swirl around the planet, it starts to mature. Like a bottle of wine it changes at a molecular level, oxidised by salt water, degraded by sunlight, eroded by the waves. The ambergris changes in colour and form, turning from a pliable odorous sludge into a creamy, off-white, almost pumice-like stone. Most importantly, it begins to change in scent, transmogrifying into an elusive, mysterious fragrance and fixative. High quality ambergris has been prized for thousands of years, from Africa to Asia, but even the crude waste has its uses.
In his book Floating Gold, molecular biologist Christopher Kemp reproduces an entry by the ‘Herodotus of the Arabs’, Al-Masudi. In the 900 AD text Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, a world history from Adam and Eve until the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, Al-Masudi writes of a people in Southern Arabia who trained camels to hunt the precious substance.
“They are a poor and needy people: they have a sort of camel called Mahri camel: it goes as fast as the Bejawi camel, or even faster, as some think. On these they ride along their coast; and when the camel comes to ambergris, which has been thrown out by the sea, it kneels down; for it is trained and taught to do so: thus the rider can pick it up.”
On Sulu, an island of the Philippines, Kemp writes, indigenous communities fished by the light provided by burning hunks of ambergris. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, easily the peak of the sperm whale’s presence in literature, an entire chapter is dedicated to ambergris: while sailing in smooth waters, Stubb, first mate of the Pequod, convinces a passing French captain to part with a sperm whale corpse dragging behind his ship. As soon as the Frenchman is gone, Stubb leaps atop the whale, spade in hand, and hacks into it just behind the eye. Reaching in he procures “six handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal,” destined for sale to a druggist.
Here in New Zealand, Māori traditionally used ambergris, or mimiha, for oral hygiene, or as a scent worn around the neck. Marie Antoinette historically favoured an ambergris-based perfume and emperor Montezuma even added ambergris to his tobacco.
I too have smoked ambergris. Elijah McDean, a lifelong Raglan local, was walking the beach at Ruapuke, a dangerous west coast beach, when an ugly stone the size of a peach caught his attention.
“My friends were going off, telling me to put it down, that I was just carrying around dog shit or something, but a family friend had told me about it years back, and I had a good feeling,” he says. “I ended up calling some guy, he came out, burned a piece and bought the chunk on the spot. I ended up buying a Datsun. Joke’s on them, I guess.”
While the majority of the chunk did go with the dealer, a small amount was left in an old film canister. Sitting in his housetruck we grated the substance onto a pipe filled with tobacco and gently sparked up. It provided a smooth, clean smoke that seemed to increase your lung capacity, similar to the feeling of using a shisha pipe. Other New Zealanders have been more sensible – and fortunate.
In 1928, Kiwi brothers Fred and Frank Ericson and their brother-in-law Bill Blair found an 85kg lump one Sunday on a beach near Otara in Eastern Southland – worth a good $850,000 today. Two of the young men were able to buy entire farms with their payouts, while the other became a successful investor. In 1945, another piece weighing 27kg was found on Stewart Island, an ambergris hotspot jealously guarded by locals (Christopher Kemp has received more than one threat for disclosing the availability). In 2008, Wellington residents thought they’d hit a greater jackpot still.
It was a crisp morning in September, and a crowd had formed on the beach at Breaker Bay on the Miramar Peninsula. With spades and axes and their bare hands they were hacking and tearing at a giant cylindrical pile of something. Was it cheese, swept in from the shipping lanes? A meteorite? A large chunk of industrial soap? Or, could it be ambergris: 450kg, a $4.5m haul, sitting ugly in the sand, carted away in wheelbarrows and fabric slings and old tarpaulins?
Adrienne Beuse is the largest ambergris dealer in the North Island. Together with her husband Frans, Beuse has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past two decades, collecting and on-selling premium ambergris to boutique perfumers. She was at home in Dargaville that morning, about to head out to run errands, when she saw the news.
“I was just picking up my handbag to walk out the door when I saw it,” she says. “I thought, ‘that’s it, whatever I have planned – cancel it, my day is over’. I straight away started checking my email and there they were, all the hopefuls who had chopped up huge lots of it. I spent the whole day telling people ‘no, I’m sorry, but that’s lard’. I was certain as soon as I saw it on TV. I just knew it would be a whole day of disappointing people.”
The ambergris that arrives in New Zealand is generally of exceptionally high quality, Beuse says. Because of our extreme isolation, the pieces that wash ashore may have been at sea for many years. These small, fragrant chunks are highly sought after for their “sublime scent” and fixative properties. Giant chunks of lard they are not.
“The chance you’ll find it is very slim but it does happen to people – we’ve had people pay for life saving operations after finding ambergris. Once upon a time I’d get people who’d bring in this material and when they found out it was the right stuff and they were going to get $20,000, I’d have people break down and I’d have to get them a Valium, you know? I had people literally in tears crying because it was going to change their lives in some way or another. These days people have already picked out the colour of the Ferrari.”
That bounty can lead to danger. In 2004, Adrienne and her husband Frans were attacked on a Northland beach by a group known informally as the ‘Beach Mafia’. As the Beuses rode along the shoreline on their quadbike, two speeding cars attempted to force them further and further into the ocean. A year earlier a man named Ross Sherman was hit by a car driven by his former business partner John James Vodanovich while fishing on the same stretch of coast. The pair had formerly ‘milked’ the shores near Dargaville for ambergris, but a falling out turned the relationship septic.
“You have to remember people do at times find larger pieces on the beach and those are pretty valuable,” says Beuse. “So some people, some very few people, become territorial on the beaches. It happens. It’s a real thing. It can be very dangerous. I myself do not go to the beach without a bodyguard. We would not be wanted on the beach by those who are territorial, so I don’t go without other witnesses.”
There are legal and ethical concerns, too. Australia and the United States both ban the import or export of ambergris, and Beuse says that perfumers in the European Union have gravitated towards synthetics in the interests of better optics – many still believe ambergris necessitates the death of a sperm whale, which remain a threatened species.
The customary rights of Māori over ambergris are also ambiguous, though in August 2010, the burial of a sperm whale carcass lead to a surprising windfall for the Kohunui Marae at Pirinoa. The 18m bull, which was set aflame and otherwise vandalised, had been stripped of its teeth and jawbone and left to rot on the beach – considered by iwi an egregious breach of tikanga. While butchering the giant animal, a large chunk of low-grade ambergris spilt onto the sand. Sold for an undisclosed amount to a French perfumer, the funds paid for renovations of the marae kitchen and wharenui. While kaitiaki Haami Te Whaiti said at the time the ambergris was a gift from tīpuna, the iwi were nonetheless hesitant to spread word of the discovery lest more corpses be desecrated.
Economic incentives aside, ambergris retains an element of the esoteric. From dealers to collectors to iwi and whānau, the substance inclines people towards the pensive. Adrienne Beuse says encountering the perfect piece is “sublime”.
“When you do find that piece, it’s just elation. It’s like finding the needle in a haystack, and you kiss a lot of frogs to get that piece. Even though we see thousands of pieces there are very few that give you that real excitement. There are a lot of great pieces, a lot of excellent pieces even, but that truly sublime is just like everything – it only comes along every so often.”
John Paice, sipping a mug of homebrew beer in his home above the sea, says he still looks for ambergris, but without expectation, and regrets selling the pieces that meant the most.
“I had a piece where there were clearly little bits of shiny beak in it. It had a rounded curvature like a giant onion, so you would imagine it must have been the size of a giant football. So little is known about sperm whales, and unfortunately they’re not making a whole lot more of them. It’s like any other precious resource nature delivers. When lightning strikes sand and disappears into the earth it melts the sand into glass. I’ve always wanted one of those – I’m just waiting for the universe to deliver.
“I still walk barefoot and nudge pieces with my toe – I can tell instantly what it is. But you’ll kick a lot of dog shit before you get ambergris.”