Monthly Archives: October 1996

Ambergris was a treasure in bad old whaling days

Published October 14, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

I recently received a call from a reader. “I want to write a book about ambergris,” he said. “Would you tell me, please, what you know about it?”

I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Ambergris. Hmm. Something about sperm whales and perfume? What was it about ambergris?

The silence on the line lengthened.

“Are you there?” my caller asked.

“Yes. I’m thinking,” I said. “I can’t tell you anything about ambergris.”

He seemed almost happy to hear this. “So that means it would be a good subject for a book, right? If people don’t know about it?”

“Maybe. If people want to know about it.”

We discussed book writing for a while, then he was off to the library.

I was left with a nagging suspicion that people might not flock to buy a book about ambergris. Ambergris, I soon learned, is whale poop.

To put it more scientifically, ambergris is a waxy substance occasionally produced in the large intestine of sperm whales. The stuff usually looks like lumpy, large potatoes – smooth and dark brown outside; pale yellow to gray inside. The lumps are firm but break apart easily.

Often, parrotlike beaks from squid are embedded in the center of ambergris chunks.

People usually find ambergris either floating on the water’s surface, or on a beach. Rarely, masses have been found weighing several hundred pounds.

If you find some disgusting, foul-smelling lump of excrement on the beach, forget it. Fresh ambergris has its own smell, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Old ambergris smells like musty base ment. An easy way to identify ambergris is to pierce it with a hot needle. Ambergris melts like chocolate, leaving a tacky coating on the needle.

Back in the bad old days of whaling, ambergris was highly prized as an ingredient (called a fixative) in perfume to keep it from evaporating.

Whalers discovering ambergris in the intestines of dead sperm whales had found treasure. Ambergris sold for $15 an ounce, a fortune in the 1880s. Today, even though the perfume industry now uses synthetic fixatives, ambergris is still worth several dollars an ounce.

Sperm whale bodies contained other once-coveted, commercial treasures. The characteristic blunt, squarish snouts of sperm whales contain a barrel-shaped organ, known to whalers as the case. Inside the case is a clear liquid oil called spermaceti.

When it hardens, spermaceti looks like white paraffin of a consistency that reminded sailors of whale semen. And that’s where these magnificent animals got their common name, sperm whale.

Spermaceti made excellent candles and ambergris made good perfume. A third sperm whale commodity was the animal’s body fat, cooked to make oil for cosmetics, soap and machine oil.

Sperm whale hunting began in 1712 in New England. The first Yankee whale ships arrived in Hawaii in 1819. They spotted and killed a sperm whale off the Big Island.

Little whaling was subsequently done in the vicinity of the main islands but news of sperm whales in Japan triggered a rush of whaleboats to Hawaii. By 1822, 60 ships were here. For the next 18 years, Hawaii’s economy was fueled by provisioning these ships and entertaining their men.

There’s good news at the end of this sperm whale tale. Although certain populations are depleted, sperm whales remain the most abundant of all the great whales, swimming the world’s high seas.

Therefore, it’s possible to find ambergris on a Hawaii beach. But regardless of its elegant uses and colorful history, when you pick it up, remember: It’s still whale poop.

Handy cards offer details on Hawaii’s coral species

Published October 7, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

 hate coral. Oh sure, it’s pretty. And yes, I know it’s the backbone of inshore marine life. But I can’t for the life of me remember its common names, pronounce its scientific names or explain its life history without looking it up.

Now I have some help for my poor memory. I recently received in the mail several lovely laminated coral cards, similar to the fish and bird cards we see in local shops.

The coral card is produced by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary with sponsorship from the Pacific Whale Foundation, the Sierra Club, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the state of Hawaii and NOAA.

On one side of the waterproof card are pictures of Hawaii’s common coral species, common and scientific names included, with a triggerfish in each to show scale.

The flip side spells out coral etiquette in six languages: Hawaiian, English, German, Samoan, Japanese and Ilocano.

EACH translation explains that corals are living creatures, easily harmed by careless people. Touching or standing on coral can damage the delicate animals. Also, kicking up sand near coral heads smothers them.

Most residents know these facts. But how much else do you know about Hawaii’s coral?

Test yourself:

1. Which one of the following is NOT a common name for one of  Hawaii’s coral species?

a) pineapple coral,

b) mushroom coral,

c)  finger coral,

d) rice coral.

2. What is a common Hawaiian name for several types of coral?

a) pua,

b) mahu,

c) koa,

d) kipuka.

3. It is illegal in Hawaii to take:

a) any kind of coral, living or dead, from anywhere,

b) live stony corals from the water,

c) invertebrates living inside coral heads,

d) pictures of coral reproducing.

4. Which type of common Hawaii coral is named after the animal part it resembles?

a) hoofed coral,

b) quill coral,

c) winged coral,

d) antler coral.

5. Corals get their colors from tiny plants growing in their tissues. These plants are called:

a) Gambierdiscus toxicus 

b) zooxanthellae,

c) zygotes,

d) petunias.

6. Which coral is soft and grows in dark places from shady tide pools to deep caves?

a) false brain coral,

b) orange cup coral,

c) pink saucer coral,

d) cauliflower coral.

Here are the answers:

1. a. pineapple coral does not exist. b. mushroom coral is Fungia scuteria, c. finger coral is Porites compressa, and d. rice coral is Montipora capitata.

2. Koa is the general Hawaiian name for coral. Antler, cauliflower and rice corals are called koa; others have specific names.

3. b. It is illegal to take live, stony corals from the water. In a bill recently signed by Gov. Ben Cayeteno, it is now legal to dig up pieces of ancient coral from the land to put in shoreside fish ponds and salt water aquariums.

After a few months, marine invertebrates set up housekeeping in the dead coral, thus creating a living rock. This new law requires licensing.

As for c., corals reproduce by spewing out sperm and eggs at certain times of the year. If you get a picture of this, treasure it.

4. d. Antler coral is common on Hawaii reefs. Its flat blades resemble deer antlers.

5. b. Zooxanthellae (zo-zan-THELL-ee) are the algae that stony corals harbor in their tissues. These algae feed the coral and the corals in turn provide carbon dioxide and nitrogen for the algae.

(a. Gambierdiscus toxicus is the dinoflgellate that causes ciguatera.)

6. b. Orange cup coral is a common, beautiful soft coral. This new coral card shows that the whale sanctuary is promoting conservation through education, as promised.

You can get your card by calling 541-3184 on Oahu or 1-800-831-4888 for neighbor islands.