Australian Couple Hits Ambergris Jackpot

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A lucky couple in Australia recently happened upon a lump of ambergris on a beach and may have netted a huge windfall. Known as "floating gold," ambergris is a waxy grayish substance formed in the intestines of sperm whales and is added to perfumes to slow evaporation. A gram of ambergris is worth up to $20.


There's an awfully happy couple these days way down under in Streaky Bay, Australia. Leon and Loralee Wright were hard at work looking for schools of salmon along the beaches of South Australia when they came across something that caught their attention.

LEON WRIGHT: Well, it actually looked like either a grey rock or a burned out stump. It's very solid on the outside and very dry, but inside it's like a black sticky tar with squid beaks and stuff inside it. It actually smells like very sweet cow dung.

NORRIS: Well, the Wrights were intrigued. They thought they knew what they had found, but decided to leave the lump on the bunch and do some investigating back home.

WRIGHT: We wasn't sure what it was, so my wife got on the internet and emailed some information to what it looked like. We thought it might have been a goiter. We didn't know what they were called even though we know what they were, and we thought it was a - so emailed to the whale people, and they said, well, from what you describe, it's not a goiter. It might be an ambergris or an ambergris. And they said, you know, good luck if it is.

NORRIS: Great luck, actually, because ambergris happens to be valuable stuff, often called floating gold. It's used in perfumes and medicine, and it can sell for as much as 20 bucks per gram. Now, a bit of an explanation is probably in order. Ambergris is a substance that giant sperm whales cough up, not exactly mucous, not really vomit. Let's just say it's a glob formed around undigestible (sic) remnants from their meals. As it floats in the ocean, sometimes for years, it solidifies and develops into what the Wrights found on the beach, and over the time, the ambergris takes on that heady aroma.

For centuries Egyptians used it to make teas, medicine, scented candles and perfumes. Herman Melville wrote about it in Moby Dick. For the Wrights in South Australia, the ambergris was a once in a lifetime discovery, so they high-tailed it back to the beach, hoping it was still there.

WRIGHT: Lucky for us, the high tide didn't pick it up and the wind carry it back to sea.

LORALEE WRIGHT: And, like, when we seen it — because you could see very way off — yeah, we even got more excited. We were sort of dancing and clapping and cheering on the beach like we were very excited.

NORRIS: The Wrights picked it up and hauled away their calcified treasure. It's now sitting safely in the vault of a local bank, tucked away in a plastic tub. They're not sure yet if they can legally sell it, but if they do, it could fetch as much as $295,000.

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