By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A fisherman may be a millionaire after finding rocks of hardened whale vomit, the Daily Mail reported. The regurgitated substance, ambergris, is used as an odorless agent to maintain the scent of perfume like Chanel No. 5. Hunting marine mammals began 9,000 years ago.
According to the Daily Mail, a 60-year-old fisherman in Thailand working for just $670 per month may soon add over $3 million to his pocket. “Ambergris, or whale vomit, is considered a sea treasure and floating gold because of an odourless alcohol that is extracted to make a perfume’s scent last longer,” the article said.
“Naris Suwannasang, 60, saw several pale rock-like lumps washed up on a beach when he was walking by the sea in Nakhon Si Thammarat, in southern Thailand. He called his cousins to help him take the items home. To their astonishment, the large rocks resemble ambergris.”
The 220-lb. find could be worth $3.2 million, due in part to the whaling industry, which sprang from the hunting of marine mammals that started nine millennia ago.
The Hunt Begins
Whaling and sealing are done on much smaller scales than they used to be. Many factors contributed to its decline, from changing popular views on the ethics of whaling to the wane in whale and seal populations. When hunting marine mammals began, Earth was a different world.
“Based on evidence from their middens, the maritime archaic Indians took marine mammals 9,000 years ago,” said Dr. Sean K. Todd, the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “They used barbed weapons and developed the first-known toggle harpoon, a device that once implanted, rotated its point so it could not be pulled out.”
Dr. Todd said that our first non-native commercial attempts to take seals didn’t begin until the early 16th century, beginning in eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Whaling predates sealing by several hundred years thanks to a commercial whaling people known as the European Basques, who may have been whaling “as early as the turn of the first millennium.”
Whaling with the Basques
Basque villagers would walk the shorelines, looking for migrating whales. When they found one, a boat team would be notified.
“The first part of the actual hunt involved harpooning the animal,” Dr. Todd said. “Contrary to popular belief, the harpoon’s job was not to kill the animal, but to attach a length of line, to which various buoyancy devices could be added that would create drag against the whale’s attempt to swim and dive.”
By the time the whale wore itself out, hunters could move in for the kill. Dr. Todd said the boats would approach the tired creature and stab it to death, causing it to die, inhumanely, from blood loss.
“This could potentially take hours, during which time the boat team was at risk from the violent actions of the animal’s death throes,” he said. “Once dead, the animal was towed to shore for processing.”
A Grisly Business Booms
Strips of whale blubber were rendered in boiling water to make oil, especially to be used as a fuel. The Basques sold barrels of it and other countries soon took notice.
“Whaling companies were started in other countries, often using the Basque people as consultants or laborers,” Dr. Todd said. “In Europe, the English, French, Dutch, and Danish were important in the whaling story. As stocks became more depleted locally, whalers pushed out further and further, looking for the new motherlode.”
For several centuries, whaling was so competitive that ships were often protected by their nations’ naval fleets. The industry went global in the 18th century and had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. As populations depleted and regulations were established, whaling declined to its modern state.
Dr. Sean K. Todd contributed to this article. Dr. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He received a Joint Honours undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Biopsychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada.