Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp was a welcomed reading assignment for me. (Thanks, Brad.) I did not know, however, whether I could read a whole book about a strange substance that comes from the intestines of sperm whales. Luckily for me and others who may chose to read this unusual book, Kemp is a clever author who keeps us entertained with his obsession to find ambergris while instructing us in natural history and varied uses of the strange rock.
So what is ambergris? It is a substance that builds up in the intestines of one in every hundred sperm whale's intestines. The statistic is based on findings of whalers who cut open whales. It is thought that the substance obstructs and eventually kills some whales. In their demise and putrefaction (or being torn apart by scavengers), the ambergris is released and might float around the oceans for months or years before it washes up on be aches, such as those of New Zealand. There, if found, it can sell for many thousands of dollars.
Identifying ambergris is really difficult, as the curing time and environment can effect its appearance greatly. The key is its smell, which may be described as a mixture of cow dung, tobacco, mown grass, turned earth, vanilla, Brazil nuts, and violets. You may be surprised to learn that it is used by the makers of very expensive perfumes, who bid on ambergris finds at exclusive auctions.
Readers learn much about the valuable substance as Kemp combs beaches and travels the world in search of experts, some of whom are particularly strange characters.
I hope this book does not just get lost back in the science shelves, as it is entertaining.
Kemp, Christopher. Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. University of Chicago Press, 2012. 232p. ISBN 9780226430362.