Whale coughs up a jackpot

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A curious Dunedin boy could be $10,000 richer after finding a smelly, waxy lump that was spat out by a sperm whale that swam past coastal Otago.

Robbie Anderson, 10, was walking his dog Scud along Long Beach, near Purakaunui, when he spied “something that looked unusual” in the sand.

The eagle-eyed youngster thought the misshapen mound half-buried in the sand was a piece of grubby soap, or part of a sheep drowned in recent floods.

His father, Robert, was just as perplexed until the internet (and later, a friend) confirmed it was ambergris – a substance coughed up by sperm whales.

“We found out it was something from a whale, something that you could sell.

“We weighed it and found out it could be worth a wee bit,” Robbie said.

The lump Robbie found last Tuesday weighed 860g.

The pieces they found when they scoured the beach the next day added up to another 370g.

They were an unattractive sight on Mr Anderson’s kitchen table, but they were heavy enough to be an impressive addition to his son’s bank balance.

Ambergris exporter Martine Morris, of Dargaville, said dealers would pay from $9 to $11 for a gram of what some justifiably called “floating gold”.

The ambergris was then sent to places such as Dubai and India, where it was turned into a fixing agent for perfume or taken as an aphrodisiac, Mrs Morris said.

Most of what she sold came from the west coast of the North Island or the Chatham Islands, so the Otago find was “one of the rarer ones”, she said.

“But it is there, you just have to be out on the beach at the end of just about every tide to get lucky enough to find it.”

Dealers require a permit to trade in ambergris, but Robbie could sell his waxy-windfall red-tape-free after telling the Department of Conservation where and when he found it.

Departmental marine conservation officer Helen McConnell said the excretion was not part of a whale, so its trade did not breach the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

However the department was still required to monitor the “movements” of the migratory beasts, so Robbie had to call the department before he sold it, she said.

A department official was not able to say how much ambergris was exported each year.

Floating gold

* Ambergris is secreted from sperm whale intestines irritated by undigested beak squid (a staple food for the whales) and expelled into the sea when the mammals cough, spit or vomit.

* It floats away as a grey, black or yellow mass weighing a few grams, although much heavier quantities are occasionally found washed up.

* The fixative qualities of the substance are used to enable fragrances and perfumes to retain their scents.

Source: Otago Daily Times