Gift from the Sea: "Heirloom whale barf"

Why, I've never read a more gripping tale of ambergris (a.k.a. "petrified whale vomit," "floating gold," or "whale's pearl"). Here's the tale of Dorothy Ferreira, whose 82-year-old sister sent her a green chunk she found on the seashore 50 years ago, with the admonition, "You’re the one who lives by the ocean; ask someone out there what it is."

She did, and discovered that she's got a key (and rare) ingredient of fine perfume, ambergris, which can sell for $10 per gram. Her holiday gift could be worth around $18,000.

And what is ambergris?
Ambergris begins as a waxlike substance secreted in the intestines of some sperm whales, perhaps to protect the whale from the hard, indigestible “beaks” of giant squid it feeds upon. The whales expel the blobs, dark and foul-smelling, to float the ocean. After much seasoning by waves, wind, salt and sun, they may wash up as solid, fragrant chunks.

Because ambergris varies widely in color, shape and texture, identification falls to those who have handled it before, a group that in a post-whaling age is very small. Ms. Ferreira says she has yet to find an ambergris expert.

“A hundred years ago, you would have no problem finding someone who could identify this,” said James G. Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution, who said he hears of new ambergris surfacing somewhere in the world maybe once every five or six years. “More often, you have people who think they’ve found it and they can retire, only to find out it’s a big hunk of floor wax.”

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