Chapter 92: Ambergris

Another break in the narrative so soon?

Notes: 150 gram piece, Contact: David Liittschwager Natural History Photography 120 Parnassus Avenue #1 San Francisco, CA 94117 cell: 415 531 6882 email: Ambergris provided by: Mandy Aftel Aftelier Perfumes 510-841-2111

Yes, it’s time for another of Old Ishmael’s little musings, but it’s just a short aside this time, not a whole tangent with its own thematic arc. A little explanation, for those of you who are not fans of the old and oft-rebooted cartoon series Futurama.


Ishmael describes the physical appearance of ambergris, and tells us how its origins were shrouded in mystery until very recently. It is very unlike amber, though it shares a similar name (“ambergris” meaning “grey amber”), since it was only found on seashores and was much softer, and smelled very sweet. It has been used mostly in perfumes, but also as medicine and some vintners even used it to flavor their claret. How could they guess that it actually comes from whales with blockages in their stomachs?

Then, Ishmael takes the field once more to defend whalers and whales in general from a charge that has been leveled on them in the popular imagination: that they stink. Whalers, at least long-haul sperm whalers like the Pequod, smell perfectly fine, like any other sailing ship, because they try out their oil on the sea. This reputation stems from the northern fishery, where the threat of storms and rough seas make it impossible to go boiling big sheets of blubber on the actual whaling ship.

The common practice is to just cut up the blubber and stuff it in barrels, only bringing it out for processing back on land. The smell of these bloody strips of fat are unbearable. The Dutch even established a colony on Greenland for the sole purpose of trying out whale out away from the rest of civilization.

Whales themselves, meanwhile, smell perfectly fine. Mostly they don’t have any scent at all, beyond the usual sea-smell. Sometimes they emit a sort of pleasant musk over the ocean when they leap into the air, not unlike the majestic, incense-perfumed elephant that was brought out to greet Alexander the Great during his conquest of India!


Well, okay, there is a bit of a tangent, but just a small one, and it’s very relevant to the topic at hand, in the end.

The main thrust of this chapter is playing back into the theme of the mysterious and unknown nature of whales, and of the natural world in general. Nowadays, with all of humanity’s knowledge available at any time from any computer or smart phone, it’s harder to relate to the idea that there are some things you simply do not and will never know.

What Is This Stuff?

Let’s look at ambergris, as Ishmael does.

If you found some stuff on the beach, and it smelled good, what would you think of it? What would be your theory about where it came from, and what it could be used for? Well, clearly it could be used by people whose job is to Make Things What Smell Good. As for where it came from, who could possibly know?

Maybe you go to some learned person and ask them, and they tell you “Ah yes, this is ambergris, a very precious and valuable substance.” But do they know what it’s made of or where it comes from? Absolutely not. It has never been recorded in a way that they have access to, even if some other person back in the mists of history managed to figure it out.

Going on your modern wiki-ed ‘pedia or other such knowledge database, you have to search long and hard to come across some subject where the definitive answer is “we don’t know”. It’s always fun to me when things like that crop up on the bible podcast Apocrypals, where the interpretation of ancient texts simply reaches a roadblock.

After all, it’s much easier to run into this kind of dead when the subject is ancient human cultures, as opposed to the still-extant natural world. Casually looking about, it’s easy to imagine that we’ve figured everything out, we exist at the end of history, and are simply in the process of categorizing and sorting things out.

Funnily enough, Ishmael knows exactly what ambergris is, through personal experience:

I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb thought might be sailors’ trowsers buttons; but it afterwards turned out that they were nothing more than pieces of small squid bones embalmed in that manner.

Which, in itself, solves another long-standing mystery: what do sperm whales eat? Well, they eat squid. No human being on Earth has ever seen a sperm whale eat a squid, but we know that they do because we find squid beaks in their guts.

Similarly, how do we know where ambergris comes from? Because whalers dig it out of whale guts. Then they wrote it down and let everyone else know.

Sperm Whale Defense Squad

As always, Old Ishmael is especially interested in defending the reputation of whaling as an institution, and of whales. It’s always interesting to me how fervently he defends them in any context, and also how he always does so by comparing them to royalty.

I suppose it’s a move to take those at the lowest social level, those workers who toil in an open-air abattoir, far out of sight of anyone, with those at the highest. Even if he fails to make them appear as equals, they can’t really end up in a worse position.

It ties back in with the tragic and cautionary nature of this book. It serves as a warning, and to highlight the value of these forgotten human lives, on the edges of society. The value of any life, in fact; for nobody knows whence some important knowledge may spring forth into human ken, or what critical function some individual may serve in the larger systems of the world.

Yes, with all my reflections, I believe that this is what truly lies at the heart of this moldy old tome: a wild, animalistic plea for sympathy.

The Unknown Life and Death

Throughout this book, Ishmael has been reminding us that whalers face the possibility of death at any moment, and their bodies are often not recovered. They can be towed out of sight by a whale, and simple never found. They can be crushed or smashed to pieces, they can drown, they can be torn asunder.

The isolated nature of this business means that their bad reputation causes them to be… not quite social pariahs, but outside of the general acclaim of society. Their efforts are not recognized, everything is negotiated through the cold calculus of money. Their pain is left private, their achievements, unknown.

So, the book itself serves as a method to combat that indifference. I’ve said that much before. But remember: this book is written by Ishmael many years after the fact. We’ve seen textual evidence of that, direct and undeniable. Why does an old whaler sit down to write the story of this particular voyage, with these particular details and emphases?

It is an epitaph, and explanation, and an exploration. These men never had their sacrifice recognized, they never had their story told properly, by someone who was actually there. The whole practice of whaling is obscure and mysterious to those outside of it.

Look, Ishmael says, the unknown is not meaningless.

Well, that was a good one. Definitely developing some ideas here, it’s all coming together in some interesting ways, for my particular interpretation of this text. It brings to my mind some fun ways you could adapt this book, as a drama surrounding the publication of the fictional book.

We’re very close to the start of one of my favorite subplots in this book, something which is very rarely brought up, at least in my experience, but is key to the whole thing.

Until next time, shipmates!

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