How do I go about positively identifying ambergris?

From: Pieter Arend Folkens (animalbytes@earthlink.net)
Date: Tue Feb 13 2001 - 12:07:48 EST


>In 1994 I discovered a substance on the beach in Anahola , Kauai, Hi it
>matches all descriptions of Ambergris I can find .
>At this same time two sperm whales washed up on the beaches of Kauai,
>one was on the other side of the bay where I found the substance the
>other about 6 miles away. I had a small sample taken to the Bishop
>Museum in Oahu but they were unable to deny or confirm if it was
>ambergris. It was set to a research lab in
>California but no clear answer was available from them either. I have
>close to
>30 lbs of this stuff and would really like to know if it is ambergris
>can you help me?

Dear Cindy:

Your story reminds me of the "Ambergris Wars." Back in the midsts of the
Great Depression (around 1933), someone found a good-sized lump of the
stuff on a beach in Marin County north of San Francisco. The person sold it
for a substantial amount of money. The story was published in a SF paper,
and suddenly thousands of people were combing the beach for ambergriss. Of
course, none of them knew how to identify the substance, and con-men and
other frauds were selling fake ambegriss and shares in a stakes and claims
that didn't exist. (See Oceans magazine for the story)

As you may know, ambergris is the undigestible part of squid beaks that
accumulate in the digestive tract of sperm whales (a major predator of
giant squid). In the last Century, it was very valuable as a binder in the
perfume industry to retard evaporation, even though it smells badly in its
natural state. The word is French, referring to a similarity with amber and
the color -- amber and greyish.

I don't know for shure if it is legal for you to have the stuff. The law
says that citizens may not possess parts of marine mammals. But is
ambergriss part of a whale, or part of squids?

Now, for the identification:
I have a piece in my office. It is a hard waxy substance, sort of a dirty
ocher color (yellow-greyish), and smells. It is a bit flaky and floats.
Without having your specimen in hand, I really can't give a solid
determination. As for further possible tests, Bob Jones at the Museum of
Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ, UC Berkeley) would know. I think Richard Ellis
would have some insight into this as well.

I hope this helps.

Pieter Folkens

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