In search of floating gold


When, five year’s ago this September, an unidentified greasy mass, roughly the size of a 44 gallon drum, washed up on a beach near New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, the mere possibility that it might just be the allusive ambergris, the highly prized key ingredient in the manufacture of perfume, caused people to start chipping off chunks and squirrel it away. After all, with ambergris fetching approximately US$20 per gram, many thought that they had just hit the jackpot.

Turned out they hadn’t. What they were hoping was ambergris or  ‘floating gold’ was, in fact, tarrow that had fallen off a ship somewhere out at sea.

For those who’d tackled the mass with shovels and pickaxes, enthusiasm turned to disappointment and disillusionment.

But for Christopher Kemp, it was the beginning of an obsession that would lead him to around New Zealand and various other parts of the world seeking exactly what ambergris was and why it was so sought after.

A scientist, self-confessed nature nerd, and something of a magpie of things weird and wonderful, Kemp set off on a journey through manuscripts, the attics of museums and universities, and the rough and barren beaches of New Zealand.

His fascination with ambergris, a smelly substance that is, in it’s most simplistic form ‘whale dung’ had him wandering month after month along lonely windswept beaches, entering the world of secret, underground world of ambergris hunters and dealers, and into the dark backrooms of museums for a chance ambergris encounter.

Kemp never quite managed to find his own piece of ambergris.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, Kemp’s book ‘Floating Gold’ offers readers an alluring and entertaining glimpse into one to the world’s most expensive and least known substances in the world.

Read this book and you may never smell perfume or look at sperm whales the same way ever again.

To see what I mean, check out this excerpt from Floating Gold, the search for Ambergris that discusses the origins of ambergris.

And while you’re at it, why not check out these ambergris photos so that you know what you are looking for if you just happen to find yourself wandering along a windblown, barren beach one day.



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