fRans Beuse sits at his kitchen table and looks at what appears to be a series of rocks. With a slender, sharpened blade, he scrapes them in turn, producing five mounds of powder: bright white, deep caramel, tarry black.
He lights a candle, holds a thick needle into the flame and then into the powder, which smokes and bubbles into a shiny liquid. Beuse leans forward, closes his eyes, and draws a thin wisp of smoke into his left nostril.
“Sweet and amber,” he says. “It’s on my lips, so I can taste it constantly.”
The process has an illicit air, but the substance Beuse handles is not a drug. It is ambergris, a form of whale dung, exceedingly rare and valuable, sought after by perfumers and collected by mysterious harvesters among the wreckage of New Zealand’s stormy coastlines. Frans Beuse and his wife Adrienne are among the largest dealers in the country.
It is a profession known for its secrecy. Few ambergris collectors will talk to reporters, and some are fiercely—even violently—protective of their patches. Now centuries-old trade is being reshaped by human influence: As climate change changes weather patterns and ocean currents, so do the patterns of ambergris distribution.
The smell of a whale
“Nothing else really smells like ambergris except sperm whales,” said Kane Fleury, curator of the Otago Museum. He knows that smell well; the museum sometimes works with the Department of Conservation to examine whale remains or assist at the beach. “There’s kind of a sweet smell to it,” he says, “a real nose-filling marine mammal essence, oily and fragrant and quite intoxicating, the scent of a whale.”
That scent permeates ambergris, which forms in the whale’s digestive tract to protect it from damage from the sharp edges of squid beaks and ocean debris. It holds up as it is tossed by tides, bleached by the sun, and dried out by salt. “Each piece as it rolls around hardens, getting smaller and denser and drier on the inside… [until] it will be completely white or almost white, there will be no more moisture,” says Adrienne. That process takes hundreds of years.
When ripe, ambergris is prized by perfumers for its fixative properties, as well as its own fragrance, which can range from deep fecal animal musk to a sweeter dark caramel, or light and powdery in the higher grades.
Higher quality ambergris is worth more than $27 per gram. Because it can come in huge chunks, fishermen over the years have reported finds worth as much as £1.5 million. The money at stake can make the hunt for ambergris fraught and at times dangerous.
A fortune found on a beach
On a vast beach on the west coast of the North Island, the Beuses meander along the high tide line. Huge dunes rise beside them, crumpled by the wind. This coastline is known for its wild sandy beaches, powerful currents and huge surf. It is also known as a hunting ground for ambergris, with westerly winds landing wreckage from the Tasman Sea.
The sand of the 100 km long beach is crisscrossed with tire tracks.
“She [collectors] drive it day and night,” says Adrienne.
The coastline has also been the site of bitter conflict between hunters. In 2004 court records described a dispute between two amber collectors who had done business together. One man drove the other down on the beach in his truck, the court heard. The driver, who was eventually acquitted, said his ex-business partner attacked his car with a PVC pipe and smashed the windshield.
The Beuses don’t come to this beach alone anymore – they say they’ve received threats from competing ambergris foragers. “People get beat up,” says Frans. “One and a half million dollars. You think someone won’t beat you up for that?’ says Adriana.
A science writer who wrote a book on the history of ambergris reported receiving hate mail and threats of legal action from New Zealand collectors after publication.
When asked which beaches are the most productive, Fleury laughs. “I don’t like to poke the bear too much,” he says.
“Ambergris is treated by them… collecting it almost as if it’s a nefarious activity that’s illegal, but in reality it isn’t,” says Fleury. “It’s a really bizarre situation with the level of secrecy and mystery surrounding it — and I think that’s because there are unknown amounts of money attached to finds and people want to protect their patch,” he says. “Which I think is why people are so in love with it when they hear about this fortune that can just be found on a beach.”
The subjective nature of amber identification can also lead to conflict. The substance is impossible to identify by looks alone: aged amber can resemble pumice, sandstone, or hardened lard, and fresher finds can easily be confused with rocks, fossil wood, or even dog poop. In New Zealand newspapers, alleged ambergris finds are a semi-regular feature – but often they turn out to be disappointing lumps of plastic or just unusual-looking stones.
The possibility of extravagant wealth can spark a surprising capacity for self-deception, says Anton van Helden, marine science adviser at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. “Findings are so often not ambergris, and people are not deterred. They often assume that material washed up on beaches is amber in color and that it will generate enormous wealth for them,” he says. Mostly, those presenting ambergris for his rating have in fact discovered “crud chunks”.
“I’ve asked people ‘does it smell good?’ and they swear black and blue it does . . . but when they bring it in, it smells like dead sponge or rotting, rancid grease.”
As the climate crisis changes the ocean landscape, local collectors worry that genuine finds could become even rarer.
In August, scientists published a paper in the journal Ecological Indicators detailing how global warming will alter the migration patterns of blue and sperm whales in New Zealand, driving them south. Ambergris can float in oceans for centuries before drifting to shore, so a change in migration patterns alone is unlikely to change its distribution. But the heating of the oceans also changes the winds and currents that carry it to the beaches. As the oceans warm, some currents speed up, while others slow down or even collapse completely.
“Several years ago, we received more and more reports of coastal changes – that [collectors] and their parents and grandparents hadn’t seen them before,” she says. “Changes in wildlife seen, which resembled changes in coastal currents.”
Beuse has seen these shifts become more and more apparent.
“The climate and weather patterns changed,” Beuse says. “The winter pattern we’ve relied on to bring in the best amber-producing seasons — that period of wintry westerlies and storms — is shrinking.”
It worries her. “We are completely dependent on natural factors,” she says.
One of the distinguishing features of ambergris has always been the formation around the beaks of the squid – the embedded, shiny fragments were a telltale sign. Today, Fleury says, it increasingly forms around plastic. In a central piece of the Otago Museum’s exhibit, an amber clog takes on an unusual coiled shape: wrapped around a length of polyester rope. It’s a shift that ambergris collectors are well aware of.
“These people see every nook and cranny on the beach,” says Beuse.
“It was talked about in the Ambergris community for a long time before you noticed it as a headline in the media. That something is wrong with Mother Nature.”