Looking for treasure on the Connemara coast

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Ambergris is one of the world’s most expensive substances

‘Inevitably, the sperm whale’s gold has brought out the best, but mainly the worst, in human nature.’ Photograph:  Kim Westerskov/Getty Images

‘Inevitably, the sperm whale’s gold has brought out the best, but mainly the worst, in human nature.’ Photograph: Kim Westerskov/Getty Images

Sat, Mar 16, 2013, 06:00

A pink plate in the shape of a teddy bear, pressed like a mask on the face of a rock. Shreds of fish boxes. A bright yellow boot. An auctioneer’s sign – still reading “for sale”, naturally.

Even at low spring tide, the jetsam and flotsam of a south Connemara shoreline doesn’t yield the treasure we’re searching for.

It could resemble black tar or a small grey or white rock, with an aroma reminiscent of sheep droppings or Brazil nuts or seaweed roasting in the sun. Sought by successive grand dukes and sultans and blenders of fine perfume, the “preternaturally hardened whale dung” that forms the substance known as ambergris has commanded the highest prices on international markets since time began.

And here’s the rub – never mind this talk of oil and gas strikes off this shoreline, for it can be found on this Atlantic seaboard! Pat Lillis, part-time beachcomber in Clare, believes it has been washed in here for centuries and almost certainly traded, but rarely recorded in official documents.

No one quite knows where or when it was discovered, according to Michigan-based molecular biologist Christopher Kemp who became so obsessed with it that it almost took over his life. Thanks to the sperm whale’s fondness for squid, and its inability to digest squid beaks, ambergris is created in its gut and eventually expelled at sea.

By the time it is washed ashore, it has been moulded and weathered, and is only recognisable by its distinctive scent. At some point in history, someone ground a piece of it down, dissolved it in alcohol, and discovered that it could act as a powerful fixative for perfume.

And “who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!” wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick over 160 years ago. In his own non-fiction work on the subject, Kemp notes that ambergris is one of the world’s least known, but most expensive, substances.

The scientist’s interest was first aroused in September 2008 when there was a frenzy on a New Zealand beach. Kemp was working in the University of Ontago on South Island when hundreds of people, followed by the national media, converged on a coastal area near Wellington. After three days, it was confirmed that the potentially lucrative lump washed up with the tide was just a piece of worthless tallow.

Back in the ninth century, ambergris was an important commodity for the Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, Kemp learned when he began to investigate. The Nicobarese wisely maintained control of this trade for much of their history, selling it to the Chinese and Burmese for medicinal use.

It was used to ward off the plague, it was an Egyptian aphrodisiac, and early 15th century Aztec emperor Moctezuma is said to have added it to his tobacco. It was once part of the standard formula for Indian ink. And what has made it so special and so valuable, and so susceptible to “gold rush” fever – as occurred north of San Francisco in 1934 – is the fact that it cannot be manufactured.

Kemp trawled through many newspaper files during his research. Back in 1891, for instance, Tasmanian fisherman Louis Smith was reported to have crawled inside the decaying corpse of a sperm whale at sea, extracting a 180lb (82 kg) boulder of the stuff which he towed back to the quay. By the time it reached London, his invaluable catch was nicknamed the “Bank Lot”.

Inevitably, the sperm whale’s gold has brought out the best, but mainly the worst, in human nature. The mammal has been killed for the substance, and the hunt for same has spawned its own “beach mafia”. International trading regulations are “Kafka-esque” , Kemp notes in his non-fiction thriller, Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris , which is published by the University of Chicago Press.

Pat Lillis, who has corresponded with Kemp, is still hoping for that one big find. The activity involves “fresh air, lots of laughs and time on this beautiful coastline”, he says. Best place for beginners to start is the highest tidal point on a beach, but it is “ankle-breaking territory” and involves endless patience, optimism and caution, he warns.

Indeed, it might just become another skill for volunteer marine mammal observers trained by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) which is recruiting new members. Cosa Nostra types need not apply, but otherwise contact Deirdre Slevin, IWDG secretary, C/o Merchant’s Quay, Kilrush, Co Clare or via website iwdg.ie