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S0Noma
12-25-2006, 08:23 AM
Gift of petrified whale vomit could be worth its weight in gold

If it's ambergris of good quality, chunk valued at $18,000


(12-25) 04:00 PST Montauk, N.Y. -- In this season of strange presents from relatives, Dorothy Ferreira got a doozy the other day from her 82-year-old sister in Waterloo, Iowa. It was ugly. It weighed 4 pounds. There was no receipt in the box.

Inside she found what looked like a gnarled, funky candle but could actually be a huge hunk of petrified whale vomit worth as much as $18,000.

"I called my sister and asked her, 'What the heck did you send me?' " recalled Ferreira, 67, who has lived here on the eastern tip of Long Island since 1982. "She said: 'I don't know, but I found it on the beach in Montauk 50 years ago and just kept it around. You're the one who lives by the ocean; ask someone out there what it is.' "

So Ferreira called the town of East Hampton's department of natural resources, which dispatched an old salt from Montauk named Walter Galcik.

Galcik, 80, concluded that the mysterious gift might be ambergris, the storied substance created in the intestines of a sperm whale and spewed into the ocean. Also called "whale's pearl" or "floating gold," ambergris is a rare and often valuable ingredient in fine perfumes.

"He told me, 'Don't let this out of your sight,' " Ferreira said.

She was soon summoned to show the thing at a town board meeting, after which a story in the Independent, a local newspaper, declared Ferreira the proud new owner of "heirloom whale barf." Friends and neighbors flocked to her tchotchke-filled cottage overlooking Fort Pond Bay, the very shores where her sister, Ruth Carpenter, said she found the object in the mid-1950s.

Childless and never married, Ferreira bounced from job to job, most recently as a short-order cook at a local deli, and now lives on her Social Security income.

"If it really does have value, I'm not silly, of course I'd want to sell it," Ferreira said as she looked out past her lace curtains and picket fence at the whitecaps on the bay. "This could be my retirement."

After researching ambergris on the Internet, Ferreira's neighbor, Joe Luiksic, advised, "Put it on eBay." But endangered species legislation has made buying or selling the stuff illegal since the 1970s; a couple who found a large lump of ambergris valued at almost $300,000 on an Australian beach in January has had legal problems selling it.

"If I get locked up, will you bail me out?" Ferreira asked her friends.

Ambergris begins as a waxlike substance secreted in the intestines of some sperm whales, perhaps to protect the whale from the hard, indigestible "beaks" of the giant squid it feeds upon. The whales expel the blobs, dark and foul-smelling, which then float. After much seasoning by waves, wind, salt and sun, they may wash up as solid, fragrant chunks.

Because ambergris varies widely in color, shape and texture, identification falls to those who have handled it before, a group that in a post-whaling age is very small. Ferreira says she has yet to find an ambergris expert.

"A hundred years ago, you would have no problem finding someone who could identify this," said James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution, who said he hears of new ambergris surfacing somewhere in the world maybe once every five or six years. "More often, you have people who think they've found it and they can retire, only to find out it's a big hunk of floor wax."

Adrienne Beuse, an ambergris dealer in New Zealand, said in a telephone interview that good-quality ambergris can be sold for up to $10 per gram, adding that for the finest grades, "the sky's the limit."

At $10 per gram, Ferreira's chunk, according to a neighbor's kitchen scale, would have a value of $18,000. "The only way to positively identify ambergris is to have experience handling and smelling it, and very few people in the world have that," Beuse said. "Certainly, if she has it, it's like winning a mini-lottery."

Larry Penny, 71, director of East Hampton's natural resources department, said he had no way of making a definite determination, because "we don't keep a certified whale-vomit expert on staff."

Penny, whose great-great-uncle was skipper of a whaling ship out of Sag Harbor, said he grew up searching the beach for ambergris.

"The older folks would always tell us, 'Keep your eyes open for that whale vomit because it'll pay your way through college,' " he recalled. "We used to bring home anything that we thought looked like it, but it never turned out to be ambergris. The average person today could trip over it on the beach and never know what it was."

Ambergris has been a valued commodity for centuries, used in perfume because of its strangely alluring aroma as well as its ability to retain other fine-fragrance ingredients and "fix" a scent so it does not evaporate quickly. Its name is derived from the French ambre gris, or gray amber. During the Renaissance, ambergris was molded, dried, decorated and worn as jewelry. It has been used as an aphrodisiac, a restorative balm, and a spice for food and wine. Arabs used it as heart and brain medicine. The Chinese called it lung sien hiang, or "dragon's spittle fragrance."

It has been the object of high-seas treachery and caused countries to enact maritime possession laws and laws banning whale hunting. Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it daily to make herself irresistible to Louis


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