Daily Echo via BNPS.co.uk
Eight-year-old Charlie Naysmith shows off the piece of ambergris he found on the beach at Hengistbury Head on the coast of southern England.
An 8-year-old boy in England could be up to $63,000 richer, thanks to a piece of solidified whale vomit he picked up on the beach. The chunk may look like a yellow-brownish rock, but it's actually a primo piece of ambergris, an expensive perfume ingredient that is, um, spewed out by whales.
Charlie Naysmith stumbled upon the loaf-sized lump at Hengistbury Head, on the southern coast of England, the Bournemouth Echo reported over the weekend.
As far as Charlie was concerned, it was just a seaside curiosity. But after doing some research, he and his family determined that the curious lump could be worth somewhere between £10,000 and £40,000 ($15,850 to $63,350).
"We have discovered it is quite rare and are waiting for some more information from marine biology experts," the boy's father, Alex, told the Echo.
Charlie is reportedly thinking about using the money to build a house for animals. But first, he and his parents might want to get that expert opinion. It turns out that the ambergris trade can get pretty sticky.
Ambergris is a waxy, bile-like substance that builds up in the intestines of sperm whales, apparently to ease the passage of hard material such as squid beaks through a whale's digestive tract. It's often characterized as whale vomit, and although that's fine as a family-friendly description, the stuff is more widely thought to come out of the whale's back end rather than its front end.
Fresh ambergris smells like fresh whale poop, but after a long period of seasoning and hardening in the ocean, it takes on a more delicate odor. It's been variously compared to the aroma of tobacco, the scent of an old wooden church, the fragrance of seaweed, or the smell of rubbing alcohol without the pungency.
"The problem with trying to describe the smell of ambergris is that it really only smells like ambergris," Christopher Kemp, a biologist and neuroscientist who's written a book about the substance, told Bloomberg Businessweek's Eric Spitznagel.
The title of Kemp's book? "Floating Gold."
The scent of ambergris is what makes it so valuable. The substance has been used as an incense, fragrance, flavoring, remedy or aphrodisiac in many cultures, going back to ancient Egypt and China. Herman Melville devoted a whole chapter of "Moby Dick" (Chapter 92) to a discussion of ambergris and how highly prized it was in 19th-century society. "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!" Melville wrote.
More recently, ambergris — or ambrein, a compound extracted from ambergris — has been used as a fixative or fragrance amplifier rather than the main ingredient in perfumes. Ambergris' selling price has been quoted at $10 to $50 per gram, depending on the quality of the specimen. (The Echo estimates that the lump found at Hengistbury Head weighs about 600 grams, which suggests that Charlie shouldn't count on building a $63,000 house for his animals.)
The bad news is that the trade in ambergris isn't what it used to be, in large part due to the endangered status of sperm whales. By some accounts, it's illegal to sell the stuff in many jurisdictions, including the United States. There are some traders who dispute that interpretation of anti-whaling laws, but the stigma has driven perfume companies to look for plant-based substitutes such as labdanum, or synthetic scents such as Ambrox. (University of British Columbia researchers reported earlier this year that a balsam-fir gene may provide a path to cheaper ambergris-like compounds.)
Maybe it's the whiff of illegality, or maybe it's just that the stuff is so expensive — but for whatever reason, there's a clandestine character to the modern-day ambergris market. One of the subjects Kemp interviewed for his book is a full-time dealer on New Zealand's North Island, named Adrienne Beuse. Last year, she was involved in a huge ambergris deal that probably saw hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands. "It was a lot of money — that's all I can say," one of the sellers said.
The way Beuse tells it, New Zealand's choicest hunting grounds for ambergris are ruled by a gang of aggressive collectors and traders — a gang that doesn't shy away from violence to defend their turf. "They're called the Beach Mafia up here," Kemp quotes Beuse as saying. "They claim a proprietary interest in the beach. They are defending, I guess in their minds, their territory. And it's worth a lot of money. If a piece worth $50,000 washes up, they don't want anyone else to find it."
It sounds as if Charlie is lucky to live in southern England rather than northern New Zealand. But he better watch his back.
More about whales:
- TODAY video: Humpback whale 'waves' at boaters
- Flash interactive: All about whales
- Whale poo: Miracle grow for the ocean
- Dog stars in killer-whale stress study
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.