ambergris

Inside the Secretive, Lucrative and Occasionally Violent World of Finding and Selling Whale Poop

Ambergris’ value on the perfume market has given rise to a shady subculture of fraudsters, dealers and thugs – some of whom are willing to spill blood to protect their patch.
September 17, 2021, 6:24am

The stone is waxy, gritty, and leaves on the skin a trace of oily resin not unlike cannabidiol. Its smell, which so many have labelled “indescribable,” is an olfactory kaleidoscope: tobacco, wood, damp leaves, live animals. It smells like the sea, which is where it comes from, and shit, which is what it is. It seems absurd that people have been shot at, run over and threatened by a territorial mob known as the Beach Mafia... for this.

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Ambergris. One of the world’s most mysterious substances, these hardened little lumps of bodily fluid have been misidentified over the centuries as everything from meteorites to mushrooms, dragon spit to fish liver. These days beachgoers most often mistake them for hunks of fat or pumice, fetched up on the shore among the flyblown miscellany of flotsam, jetsam and seawrack. 

In reality, the precious stones are a digestive byproduct of one of the largest animals on Earth. And to the right buyer – namely, someone who knows the right people in the luxury perfume industry – they’re worth a small fortune.

It’s hard to know for sure how ambergris is formed, but the dominant theory is this. Deep in the abyssal darkness of the world’s oceans, some half-a-kilometre below the surface, sperm whales, the largest toothed predators on Earth, sustain themselves on a diet of squid – giant squid, colossal squid and Humboldt squid, among others. Squids’ bodies are mainly soft, pliant and easily broken down, with one notable exception: their beaks, which resemble those of parrots and are harder than virtually all known metals and polymers.

More often than not these indigestible squid beaks are spewed back out into the sea. But scientists believe that, about one percent of the time, they make their way down into the whale’s digestive system, where they lacerate the sides of the intestines and are coated in a secreted, protective substance – not unlike that which coats tiny irritants inside oysters and turns them into valuable pearls. This newly formed mass makes its way to the whale’s anus where, provided it doesn’t cause a fatal blockage, it is expelled. It floats to the surface, brines in the salt water, hardens in the sun and is buffeted on the tides and oceanic currents for months, years, possibly decades, until it eventually washes up on some far-flung shore. 

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It is here that it finally comes into the hands of people like Lloyd Esler, a veteran ambergris forager, natural history teacher and collector of curios, who roams the beaches of New Zealand’s windswept southern coasts on a weekly basis, fossicking around among the pebbles and carrion for a piece of precious ambergris. With his towering frame, white beard and tree branch turned walking staff, Esler looks every bit like a sort of 21st century Gandalf. Children trail in his wake, bringing him chunks of melted bottle glass and putrefying shark eggs and holding them up for his appraisal.

“No,” he says gently. “That’s not ambergris.” (Esler makes a point of pronouncing it “amber-grizz,” explaining, in his affable New Zealand accent, that he is not French).

“It's rare,” he tells this reporter later, back home among the seal skulls, whale bones and taxidermied possums that clutter his living room. “There's probably 18 to 20 kilograms [of ambergris] a year coming up on the beaches. I've collected, all up, probably a kilogram, kilogram-and-a-half maybe. Mostly small. The biggest bit was probably the size of a tennis ball.”

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Lloyd Esler has been collecting ambergris, among other seaborne curios, for decades. Here he is at home, holding an animal bone. Photo by Andrew Potter / VICE News

For those who know what they’re looking at, that’s not as insignificant as it might sound. The going price for ambergris currently ranges from $10 to $30 USD per gram, depending on its quality. Dark, muddy ambergris, which more closely resembles peat or manure, sits at the lower end of the pay scale, while the lighter-hued stuff, which has spent longer at sea and developed a sweeter aroma, is the premium product. White gold.

In February 2021, a group of fishermen in Yemen found a 127-kilogram boulder of fresh, dirty brown ambergris inside the carcass of a whale, and sold it to an Emirati businessman for more than $1.5 million USD. Just months earlier, a Thai fisherman found a 100-kilogram boulder of white ambergris on the beach that fetched offers of ​​more than $3 million USD. At those rates, Esler’s collection of fecal-scented stones, amassed over years of beach-combing, could fetch anywhere between $10,000 and $45,000. 

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He’s not in the business of selling the stuff, though. Esler collects ambergris like anyone else might collect sea shells: as trinkets of curiosity, exotic knick knacks to be lined up on windowsills or stored in jars.

“I find the mystique of it fascinating,” he says, “because it's probably got a thousand years of history of people finding the stuff, who probably didn't realise at first where it came from, and then finally tracked down the source to the whales.”

Even for him though, the value is more than just ornamental. Occasionally he’ll melt off some of the substance to drink with his coffee, imbuing the beverage with an intriguing richness. Often he’ll position the stones like pagan crystals around his home, leaving them in a bar of sunlight so that they soften and sweat, charging the room with that distinctive, animalic scent. A unique kind of incense.

Ambergris has been used as an ingredient in perfumes – and in some cases aphrodisiacs – for hundreds of years. Marie Antoinette famously wore a tincture made from the stuff; Queen Victoria’s Fleurs de Bulgarie perfume combined notes of Bulgarian rose and ambergris; and Elizabeth I perfumed her gloves with it, finding happily that the fragrance lingered even after washing the garments several times. According to Christopher Kemp, molecular biologist and the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) HIstory of Ambergris, the substance can retain its odour for 300 years.

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Today, ambergris is still prized for its fixative qualities and unique aroma profile, as well as its purported ability to enrich and inflame the scents with which it’s mixed. This rare type of whale shit has long been a key ingredient in some of the world’s most prestigious fragrances, including Givenchy Amarige and Chanel No. 5, and is commonly rendered down and infused into an aromatic tincture by perfume houses across Europe. Although these days many perfumers use synthetic versions, the substance remains one of the industry’s most valuable raw materials. 

That, in turn, has precipitated an obscure cottage industry of ambergris collectors, dealers, brokers and appraisers who roam the seemingly unremarkable beaches of coastlines around the world, searching for improbable treasure. Or, in some cases, jealously guarding it – and resorting to extreme measures to keep people off their patch.

Somewhere in the Philippines, a man holds the end of a thin metal rod into an open fire. Sitting on a table just metres away is a giant slab, about the size of a beach ball, of what looks like tar or bitumen. When the rod is hot enough, the man walks over to the table and pushes its tip against the side of the object. Instantly, thin wisps of smoke coil upwards and the slightest trace of jet black fluid bubbles around the point of contact. For those watching, this is enough.

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“No friend, it’s not ambergris,” reads one of the comments on the video, which was posted in a popular ambergris buying and selling Facebook group earlier this month. Another simply says “Rubber.”

More than 7,000 people flock to this group to compare footage of objects, found on random beaches, which may or may not be ambergris. The so-called “needle test” is a popular one: if the substance melts and produces a particular kind of glossy, sticky liquid residue, there’s a good chance it’s the real thing. Group members frequently post videos of their needle tests on the page, while other avid collectors from around the world assess whether it’s ambergris, or rubber, or just a hardened piece of dog shit. Sometimes, if the purported ambergris looks like it’s authentic, prospective buyers will use the comments section to put down an offer.

There are numerous groups like this, tucked away in obscure corners of Facebook and frequented by people like Marcus: a seventh-generation ambergris hunter who often goes foraging for the stuff around the south of New Zealand.

“I know places,” Marcus, who asked not to use his real name for fear of angering other hunters, told VICE World News. “It’s big business if you find the right piece. [But] nothing is ever guaranteed. It's not that easy to find, otherwise I’d be retired now.”

In 15 years of semi-frequent foraging, Marcus estimates he’s found about 400 grams of ambergris. If it’s of a marketable quality, he’ll sell it to a local dealer; someone he knows personally, who he met via word of mouth. It’s not difficult to find ambergris traders online, he says, but “from what I’ve seen on the net there is a massive problem with fake ambergris buyers and sellers.”

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This is true: the informal ambergris market is flooded with fraudsters, liars and charlatans who make money selling fake ambergris, either intentionally or unwittingly, to credulous buyers. Esler showed this reporter multiple ambergris “sellers” who’d listed pieces of mutton fat on TradeMe – New Zealand’s equivalent of eBay – for as much as $7 NZD per gram.

But there is also a more official market, composed of a small handful of trading companies whose very mission statement is to test, verify and buy real pieces of ambergris. And the most successful and high-profile of those, in New Zealand at least, is run by a woman named Adrienne Beuse.

In the New Zealand ambergris scene, Beuse is a household name. Numerous people VICE World News spoke to suggested that we get in touch with her in order to find out more about the commercial and trade side of things – how a rock of ambergris makes its way from a remote, windswept New Zealand beach to a distinguished French perfume house, for example. She is known to have sold ambergris to buyers around the world. But neither she, nor her husband and business partner Frans, responded to multiple interview requests. 

Their reasons for wishing to remain silent are unclear, but it’s possible they’re the same as those given by numerous others in the ambergris business: they don’t want to draw attention to this still relatively unknown scene – or, worse still, themselves. Multiple people VICE World News approached for comment refused to talk about ambergris, and many further claimed that it’d be impossible to find anyone willing to divulge their secrets. One ambergris hunter who’d promised to show this reporter the ropes ended up pulling out last minute over fear of retribution and death threats. VICE World News was also told that people had been shot over the substance.

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Beuse has experienced this dark side of the industry firsthand. In 2004, while riding quad bikes along a beach in Northland, on New Zealand’s North Island, she and Frans were approached by two speeding cars that attempted to hem them in and drive them into the ocean. They escaped unharmed, but Beuse told the New Zealand Herald at the time that “sooner or later there's going to be a tragedy out there.”

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Ambergris could drift at sea for decades before finally coming ashore. Photo by Andrew Potter / VICE News

Speaking to Spinoff about the incident in 2019, Beuse elaborated: “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.”

By “those who are territorial,” Beuse is referring to members of the same aggressive, semi-organised collective that she previously alluded to in Kemp’s book: a group known as the Beach Mafia.

“They claim a proprietary interest in the beach. They are defending, I guess in their minds, their territory,” Beuse told Kemp. “And it’s worth a lot of money. If a piece [of ambergris] worth $50,000 washes up, they don’t want anyone else to find it.”

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There are other, similar stories. In October 2003, an ambergris hunter named Ross Sherman was fishing from a beach just north of Dargaville, in Northland, when he noticed a car racing along the sand toward him. Behind the wheel was his former business partner, John James Vodanovich. The two men had once made a full-time living “milking the beach” for ambergris, but had since had a falling out and stopped speaking. On that morning in October, things took a dramatic turn.

Prosecutors would later argue in court that Vodanovich intentionally aimed his car at Sherman, and hit him, before driving off. Vodanovich was ultimately found not guilty. But the media, who spared no ink in detailing the mens’ previous lives as die hard ambergris foragers, had already latched on to the story. 

Years later, Beuse cited Vodanovich as one of several Northland residents who were involved with the Beach Mafia, aggressively collecting and trading ambergris and clashing with any rival groups who wandered onto their turf. Another ambergris collector from Bethells Beach/Te Henga, some 115 kilometres south, told VICE World News he’d also heard of beach gangs prowling the shoreline on quad bikes – searching for both white gold and unwanted prospectors.

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Anecdotes like these, as well as others heard by VICE World News, offer dramatic examples of how tensions can heat up among people who make a living off sperm whale excrement. They also suggest there is a bitter if not sinister underbelly to the ambergris industry. But just as it’s almost impossible to know how the substance is formed without being inside the belly of the whale itself, the mysteriousness of this subculture and the paranoid secrecy of those within it means it can be hard to delineate fact from speculative fiction. As is often the case in the wild world of ambergris, the truth is murky. And for people who derive their livelihood from harvesting the substance, that’s the way they like it.

Phillip Smith, a long-time resident of Stewart Island/Rakiura, located off New Zealand’s southern tip, tells VICE World News that there are at least two locals there who make a full-time living collecting and selling ambergris. He also knows of a couple from the mainland who fly a fixed-wing aircraft to the island every time the conditions are favourable – landing the plane on certain western-facing beaches, staying for the weekend and then flying home.

“How much they find,” he says, “you never get to hear about.”

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Philip Smith is a long-time resident of Stewart Island/Rakiura, which is rumoured to be a "treasure trove" for ambergris. Photo by Ben Foley / VICE News

Stewart Island/Rakiura, which has a population of just over 400 people, is the southernmost permanently inhabited land mass outside of Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica. Given a map and the right directions, it’s also rumoured to be a “treasure trove” for ambergris.

The island’s topographical position makes it particularly auspicious for finding the substance, due in part to the amount of open ocean it’s exposed to along its western side. Smith explains that there are at least two ocean currents – one coming across the South Tasman Sea and another coming down from the North Pacific Ocean – that point towards Stewart Island/Rakiura’s west coast. These currents, like global conveyor belts, ferry all manner of debris in towards the incidental catchment areas of its various coves and bays.

“The amount of stuff that gets washed up there, it’s almost global,” says Smith. By way of example, he tells of the time a friend of his found an elephant washed up on the sand. A boat had been transporting a circus from New Zealand to Australia, he explains, and when the elephant died it was promptly dumped overboard. At another point, he says, the bays were flooded with chunks of pumice following a volcanic eruption in Chile. After that people started coming in from the west with bags full of the lightweight igneous rocks, hoping that just one of them was in fact a precious piece of ambergris.

More often than not these people are disappointed. Even Marcus, who goes actively looking for the stuff every two to three weeks, estimates that “98.8 percent of the time” he comes back empty-handed. Ambergris hunting is a craft that requires knowledge, patience and luck in order to yield returns. But every now and then, Smith says, there are murmurings of people striking gold.

“Through the grapevine you occasionally hear that somebody found an exceptionally large piece,” he says. “You very rarely hear how much they got for it. But knowing what the price of it is, it wouldn’t be hard to calculate for yourself – you know, within a few hundred thousand.”

In any case, these rumours usually come in the form of “information passed on from somebody who’s been talking to somebody who’s been talking to somebody”; rumours, hearsay and gossip. Smith doesn’t blame people for wanting to stay tight-lipped.

“If I put myself in that position, and I found a big piece, I wouldn’t tell anybody,” he says. “The purchaser will pay the price, but I wouldn’t tell anybody. That’s how stories get out.”

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