A former Dunedin resident who wrote a book on ambergris
received hate mail and threats of legal action after naming
Stewart Island as a spot to find the lucrative sperm whale
English molecular biologist Christopher Kemp first heard of
ambergris in 2008, when he was living in Dunedin and saw a
news report of an object washed up on a Wellington beach.
The large lump, which was taken piece by piece by eager
ambergris hunters, was not in fact the ''floating gold'' used
in high quality perfume, but worthless lard.
''I'd never heard of ambergris before. As soon as I saw that
news report, I was pretty much hooked.''
Mr Kemp, who moved to the United States in 2010, then began
researching one of the most valuable substances in nature,
before publishing his book Floating Gold: A Natural (and
Unnatural) History of Ambergris.
Ambergris was the result of ''a series of highly unlikely
oddities''. It was produced by just a few hundred sperm
whales and released at sea.
''The odds of finding it are minute and so its value is high.
Something like it can be produced in a laboratory, but it's
... more like an approximation.''
New Zealand is known for high-quality ambergris, probably
because it is an isolated land mass surrounding by deep
waters in which sperm whales were relatively common.
In particular, Stewart Island was known for quality
ambergris, as was the west coast of the North Island, in
areas around Dargaville and along Ninety Mile Beach.
People were collecting and trading ambergris full-time like
any other commodity, but ''they're very tight-lipped folks''.
And, in some cases, irate ones.
''Especially the friendly and loving people of Stewart
Island, who sent me hate-mail and threats of legal action
after my book was published,'' Mr Kemp said.
Good quality ambergris could sell for thousands of dollars a
kilogram and, while he had never found any, ''somewhere down
the line, someone is getting rich''.
Mr Kemp said he enjoyed writing the book:
''I'll always be glad I did it. I just might not be welcome
on Stewart Island any time soon.''
Natural history teacher and author Lloyd Esler, of
Invercargill, said he had found pieces of ambergris over the
years and advised fossickers ''they have to smell a lot of
dog droppings before they find their first piece of
He said the popularity of ambergris-hunting in the South had
increased thanks to publicity about its value and he had
heard of people training dogs to sniff it out.
Hotspots in the south were Oreti Beach, near Invercargill,
and Mason Bay on Stewart Island - ''but they are also the two
beaches frequently scoured by people who know what the stuff
''You have to get your eye in for it, as there is an awful
lot of other stuff on the beach that you could step over.
There was report of a big find on Stewart Island and there
were footprints over and around it, so people did not know
what it was.''
Mr Esler had just finished writing a book Whaling and Sealing
in Southern New Zealand which noted whalers would slit open
sperm whales' innards as part of processing. The total
ambergris recovered by all whaling vessels from 1841 to 1914
was said to be 1990kg, including 446kg collected from whales
by the Splendid on a voyage in 1882, it was sold for 25,000.
Other ambergris finds reported in the South include. -
• In 1928, three Southland men found an 85kg lump of
ambergris on a beach near Otara, Southland, earning them 8000
from a French perfume company. After expenses were deducted,
the men had enough to buy their own farms.
• In 1945, a 27kg piece of ambergris was found on Stewart
• In 2006, 10-year-old Dunedin boy found an 860g lump of
ambergris at Purakaunui, and another 370g the next day,
potentially earning him $10,000.
• Ambergris is a pathological, hardened type of sperm whale
• It's caused by the irritation of squid beaks on the
delicate gut lining in a small percentage of sperm
• Once released, it floats for years, decades or even longer,
slowly maturing and transforming until it makes landfall when
it's worth as much as gold.
SOURCE: Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History