If you were asked to picture a treasure-hunting beachcomber, you'd probably imagine an old man wielding a metal detector and oversized earphones, shoveling for pennies left in the sand by careless tourists. You probably wouldn't think such an activity would make a lucrative retirement plan.
But leftover change and lost jewelry aren't the only kinds of treasure that occasionally get buried on the beach. A small but elite group of professional beachcombing bandits know to look for something much more valuable: a solid, waxy, little-known "gemstone" called ambergris.
"It’s beyond comprehension how beautiful it is," Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, Calif., and an ambergris enthusiast, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. "It’s transformative. There’s a shimmering quality to it. It reflects light with its smell. It’s like an olfactory gemstone."
It's also poop. Sperm whale poop, to be exact. And finding just a pound of it could potentially net you as much as $10,000.
Sperm whales generate it in their intestines as a way to protect their bowels from indigestible sharp objects that occasionally get swallowed, such as giant squid beaks. It gets passed as excrement along with the rest of the animal's feces, or occasionally gets vomited back up if it causes a blockage -- kind of like a sperm whale hairball.
Ambergris gets most of its value from the perfume-trading industry due to its unique, earthy scent. For instance, in 2005, a 200-year-old fragrance originally made for Marie Antoinette that featured ambergris as a main ingredient was reproduced in limited quantities for $11,000 a bottle. It has also been used in overpriced delicacies, such as the $4,700 mince pie recently created for charity by food designer Andrew Stellitano.
To refer to ambergris as the "gold of the sea" would be apt: it sells at roughly $20 a gram while gold sells for $30. Also like gold, it's one of the few recession-proof commodities. According to Adrienne Beuse, owner of New Zealand-based Ambergris Essentials, an international trader of raw ambergris: "If I have the supply, I’ll always be able to sell it."
So why don't you hear more about people scouring beaches everywhere for whale-poop gold? Well, for one, the ambergris trade is shrouded in secrecy, according to Christopher Kemp, author of the forthcoming book, "Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris."
"There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris," said Kemp to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. "They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore."
The secrecy helps keep the ambergris in exclusive hands, to be sure. But another reason for the secrecy is that it's technically illegal, depending on whom you ask. Sperm whales are an endangered species, protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which loosely prohibits the use of any product that comes from a threatened species. But since ambergris is a waste product that can be collected without any disturbance to the animal, many interpret it as a loophole. Regulators and prosecutors habitually look the other way, and ambergris traders are rarely, if ever, punished.
Of course, another reason for all the secrecy might be that if most people knew that their high-priced perfume was scented by sperm whale poop, they might not find it so appealing anymore.
Even so, glory stories of people getting rich after stumbling on a big heap of ambergris do crop up on occasion. For instance, one lucky couple recently netted themselves more than $300,000 after coming across a 32-pound chunk of ambergris in South Australia. Not bad for an evening stroll on the beach. Another rags-to-riches story tells of native Maori in New Zealand finding $400,000 worth of ambergris late last year.
Who knows, with the right eye (and a keen nose), perhaps your next trip to the beach will make you the next ambergris millionaire. Anything is possible. If you are lucky enough to find some, though, remember: when you pick it up, it's still just whale poop.