What is an Ambergris Hunter?

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What is ambergris, and why is it so valuable? Let's start with the disturbing basics. This highly sought-after ingredient for high-end perfumes starts out as a waxy excretion in the intestines of sperm whales. Yes, you read that right.

Worse, it has been used in high-priced delicacies and in some fancy cocktail drinks as well. Food designer Andrew Stellitano used it in a $4,700 mince pie according to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek. Most likely the substance that was eaten as an ingredient in that pie was pooped out by a sperm whale years before, and floated around the ocean until it washed up on a beach and was discovered by an ambergris hunter.

Last summer a a lump of ambergris weighing about 80 pounds washed up on a beach in New Zealand. It is rumored to have been sold for $400,000 or more. Apparently there is always a market for this substance, and it can sell for $20 a gram. That's almost half the price of gold.

Now for the bad news; it may be illegal to harvest ambergris. It isn't entirely clear if the prohibition on using products from endangered animals extends to waste products which can be collected without bothering the animal. It seems likely that it is against the law, but the law is not being enforced (who cares if you collect whale crap on the beach?).

Chanel No. 5 used to have ambergris in it, but no longer does. Other perfume makers deny that they use it, but it isn't clear if they might still use it some high-priced perfumes. In any case, it is being used by someone, or there would not be such an active market and such a high price for the substance.

This video shows you how to test a sample you have found to see if it is ambergris. It also explains why the price is dropping, making this kind of beach combing less lucrative.

How Much Can You Make?

It is likely that you will go a long time as an ambergris hunter without making anything. You also might stumble upon a $20,000 find one morning. The "industry" is a secretive one, and estimating income potential is impossible.

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You might try finding other things to sell while you are roaming those beaches in search of whale-poop-treasure. Sea shells can be sold to people who make homemade crafts or even bagged and wholesaled to gift shops. Odd items which could have value also wash up on beaches; watch for glass fishing floats, old furniture, artistic-looking driftwood, interesting rocks and other things.

Qualifications / Requirements

You have to learn to identify ambergris. Apparently it is not too easy. It has been said to smell like "scented cow dung" when fresh. After floating in the sea for years or decades, it is said to smell like tobacco, Brazil nuts, or the wood in old churches.

Chris Kemp, one of the few experts on ambergris, says dog feces, old whale blubber, eroded rubber, and rotting seagulls have all been mistaken for the substance. He adds that many who search it out don't even know it comes from the sperm whale's intestines. It is apparently believed by many to be vomited up by the animals.

First Steps

Find someone in the business and talk him or her into being an apprentice. This is not a profession you will learn from a book or class. You will also have to carefully investigate to see if it is legal to do this where you live.

Resources

Ambergris, Treasure of the Deep - An informative article in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, by Chris Kemp; University of Chicago Press 2012 - This book, to be published in May of 2012, is by a neuroscientist who spent many years investigating the ambergris business.


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