December 06, 2006
Over the course of their lives, most people can relate to receiving an unusual gift from a relative — that strange tchotchke, or odd appurtenance of sentimental significance. Not many, however, can boast heirloom whale barf.
Dorothy Ferreira in Montauk can.
On Saturday morning, in fact, her cozy cottage on Navy Road was brimming with friends and neighbors stopping by to take a gander at the rare object — a three-pound slab of solidified whale vomit, sent to her recently by her sister Ruth Carpenter.
"She said she wanted to send me something she found on the beach 50 years ago," Ferreira explained. "I was expecting a little rock or a shell, but when I opened the box, I was scared." The artifact originated in the intestines of a sperm whale. Known as ambergris, it's quite valuable.
Years ago ambergris was a key ingredient in most perfumes. Used as a fixative, over the years it's been replaced by synthetic materials. It's still used in some very pricey scents, but not in this country. It's against the law.
In the 70s, provisions of the Endangered Species Act made it illegal to own or sell ambergris. Ferreira seemed confident that she wouldn't end up on any kind of Most Wanted list for owning whale hurl, since her sister collected it on the beach before the law went into effect. She was also not worried the feds might look to extradite her 82-year-old sibling from Iowa, where she currently lives, for prosecution. She did, however, contact town officials, asking them to come by and take a look at the decades-old digestive product.
Noting the find at town hall last Friday, Supervisor Bill McGintee suggested Ferreira be invited to bring it up to a meeting. "Bring it up, " Councilwoman Deb Foster interjected, " That's no pun intended, right?"
During the Renaissance, ambergris was molded, dried, decorated and worn as jewelry. Scientists believe sperm whales produce the substance to aid them in the digestion of sharp parts of their preferred foods. Squid beaks have been found imbedded in ambergris.
According to a fact sheet by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, pure ambergris can fetch anywhere from $2 to $9 per ounce. That's in its liquid form. (Note to self: decline invitation to whale puke melting party). Several standard tests can be performed to assure the ambergris is real, and not simply another form of oceanic detritus.