Charlie Naysmith, 8, was strolling with his dad along the beach in New Zealand when he stumbled on what he thought was a funny-looking rock. The rock was quite compelling, thanks to its surprisingly light weight and faint waxy texture, so young Charlie decided to take it home. As it turns out, the weird rock was actually not a rock at all, but an incredibly rare substance called ambergris, which is, essentially, a very valuable piece of whale poop. Charlie's 1.3-pound piece of ambergris is estimated to be worth somewhere around $65,000. Here's what you should know:
What is ambergris exactly?
There's a "popular misconception of ambergris as whale vomit," molecular biologist Christopher Kemp tells ABC News. In truth, ambergris is "poop." But it's very rare poop. Creating a chunk of ambergris requires "one unlikelihood piled on top of another," says Kemp, and "only one percent of the 350,000 sperm whales [on Earth] can actually make it." Ambergris is essentially made out of a fatty substance that protects a whale's intestines when they feast on hard substances like the beaks of squids. Occasionally, sperm whales dump out hundreds of pounds of the stuff at a time. From there, ambergris has to float around in the ocean for decades, where it has to harden to become valuable.
Why is it so valuable?
Because it's used in the high-end fragrance industry. Ambergris was the main ingredient in a super-expensive, 200-year-old perfume originally made by Marie Antoinette. And today, perfume companies like Chanel and Lanvin use it to "fix scent to human skin," says Johnna Rizzo at National Geographic. A few ounces of the stuff can go for a few thousand dollars, earning it the nickname "floating gold."
What does it smell like?
Each piece of ambergris is slightly different since they're all exposed to varying amounts of sun and seawater. Some are more on the musky side. Others are a bit sweeter. Professional noses at perfume companies are charged with determining the value of each piece of ambergris. "One drop of ambergris can change a perfume," says Claire Payne, an aroma therapist and perfumer.
Is this the largest piece ever found?
No. It isn't even the largest in recent memory. In 2008, two beachcombers were walking their dog along a beach in North Wales when they found a chunk that weighed 110 pounds. It ended up fetching them $790,000.
What does Charlie plan to do now?
While sale of the substance was banned in the U.S. in 1972 because ambergris comes from endangered sperm whales, the boy is planning to sell his in Europe. He says he wants to use the earnings to build a shelter for animals.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
- How I lost all my money
- How to save money: 12 great personal finance tips
- The religious right isn't retreating — it's reforming
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 10 things you need to know today: December 22, 2014
- A brief history of the Christmas present
Subscribe to the Week