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Gold of Sea

David Stemmer with a sperm whale skeleton. Picture: Kelly Barnes.

Meredith Booth, Museum’s ‘floating gold’ nugget valued at $40,000, The Australian, 26 August 2016

Seven sperm whale carcasses mysteriously beached on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula two years ago have yielded a surprise “floating gold” nugget for scientists, estimated to be worth $40,000.

Discovered by a South Australian Museum staffer, a fist-sized lump of white ambergris, prized for centuries as a medicine, aphrodisiac and perfume, “popped out during the rotting process’’, said mammals collection manager David Stemmer.

Weighing almost 2kg, the piece was recently appraised as of highest quality by a New Zealand trader, at $20,000 a kilogram worth half the value of gold by weight. It completes Australia’s most comprehensive ambergris collection, Mr Stemmer said.

Rarity drives its value because the waxlike substance is found in only 1 per cent of sperm whales and usually discovered floating on the ocean or washed up on coastlines of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Demand remains strong from the perfume industry, which considers ambergris a better fixative than the synthetic alternative ambroxan. It is used in high-end perfumes to preserve scent.

Often called “floating gold”, ambergris was traded by Arabs along the Indian Ocean coast from 900AD and was thought to be a product of coastal tree roots. Its real origin, in whales’ intestines as masses of indigestible squid beaks, tentacle rings and parasite cuticals, was found by scientists in the late 1770s.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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