The Magazine

Fortune’s Lump

The unlikely alchemy that leaves a scent.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By KATE HAVARD
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That is what the people of Bolinas Beach, California, undoubtedly thought when an enormous “cheesy lump” of unknown substance washed ashore in 1934. The town, ravaged by the Depression, declared a holiday, closing schools so that children could go and collect handfuls of ambergris to bring back to their families. Collectively, the town gathered about 300 pounds of the substance, then valued at $28 an ounce. Young men proposed marriage to their sweethearts; fathers told reporters that they would be able to educate their children. Yet in a week, lab results showed it had all been a dream: The “cheesy lump” was nothing but congealed sewer cleaner, washed in from nearby San Francisco.

Kemp is at his best here, illustrating ambergris’s effect on those who seek it and those who find it. One woman tells the story of how she and her husband discovered a mass of ambergris valued at approximately $250,000. But as they sat at home, discussing what to do with the substance and waiting out the hightest bidder, they noticed something alarming: the lump was losing weight. Their small fortune was quickly evaporating. The woman implies that they soon sold the ambergris to the first bidder they could find, but never says how much ambergris they had lost or how much the remains had been sold for. 

Not only is ambergris incredibly difficult to find, it is apparently ephemeral: When grasped too tightly, it slips away. But as long as there are sperm whales, there will be ambergris. Money, of course, does not grow on trees, but ambergris grows inside whales—and one never knows where it might turn up.

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.