22 May 2013

Interview with Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold - The Search for Ambergris, The Most Elusive Substance in the Natural World

Today, scientist, writer and ambergris hunter Christopher Kemp stops by for a virtual chat about his book Floating Gold - The Search for Ambergris, The Most Elusive Substance in the Natural World, his love for ambergris and some of his favourite authors and books.

Interview Questions
For the benefit of those who haven't read your bookwhat is ambergris?
Author and ambergris hunter Christopher Kemp
Ambergris is a strange and intestinal secretion produced by an estimated one percent of sperm whales. It forms in the hindgut, binding up hard and durable squid beaks that the whale has ingested and cannot digest. Most whales regurgitate this indigestible slurry but, in a few cases, it makes it through the whale's four cavernous stomach chambers and into the small intestine instead. It begins to chafe and irritate the gut lining. In response, the whale's intestine secretes an oily, cholesterol-rich substance that forms a stratified boulder. Once expelled at sea, it drifts on ocean currents for months and years -- and perhaps even decades. As it floats, it ages. Cured by the saltwater and oxidized by sunlight it becomes a white waxy substance. Its odor profile, which was once fecal and fairly aggressive, softens and becomes unique and indescribable. 

What is it used for?
For centuries, it has been used as a principal ingredient in perfume, acting as a fixative -- a stabilizer that makes the scent last longer on the wearer's skin. But it has also been used as a drug, an aphrodisiac, an ingredient in cooking, a commodity, and all sorts of other things too. In many instances, companies have replaced genuine ambergris with synthetic compounds, but it is still used. When it washes ashore, the highest quality ambergris is worth up to $20,000 USD a kilo. Across the world, people still hunt for it, collect it, trade it clandestinely, and dream about it always.

A Molecular Biologist by trade, how did you first become interested in ambergris?
I was working in New Zealand in 2008. One night, I switched on the TV and on the evening news there was a report about a mysterious object that had washed ashore near Wellington, the capital city. Some people claimed it was a meteorite; others thought maybe it was an enormous boulder of Brie cheese. It weighed an estimated half-ton. At some point, someone must have suggested it was ambergris and within hours a crowd of a hundred or so people had descended onto the beach, armed with garden tools. They hacked it to pieces, each trying to claim a piece of it. A group of students used a bed sheet to carry a large piece of it home. I'd never heard of ambergris before. But from that moment on, I was pretty hooked. So the book really tells the story of my educated and infiltration into the ambergris world.
A piece of ambergris
Credit: Christopher Kemp

The pursuit of ambergris has taken you all over the world, even living in New Zealand for a while with your family. Do they share your interest, tolerate your interest or do they think you are obsessed?
My family has always tolerated, and mostly shared, my obsessions. Quite quickly, I began to realize that the possibility of finding ambergris really presented a reason for spending time outside on the coastline with my son, who had just recently been born. It was a portal. I spent so much time outside, exploring the world that, had I not been searching for ambergris, I might never have experienced. The temptation, especially when you have a three-month-old baby who doesn't sleep much, was always to lounge in front of the TV. In search of ambergris, I was always forced, even on rainy, windswept spring days, when the trees are bent over in the wind, to go out after high tide to look for beach cast ambergris instead.

Do you think the value of ambergris will increase or decrease in the future, given many companies use synthetic forms of ambergris now to fix their perfumes?
It's hard to say what will happen. On one hand, one of the larger companies are using synthetic ambergris. On the other hand, more people than ever are becoming artisanal perfumers who make handcrafted fragrances in their home laboratories. Many of them use all-natural products and rely heavily on ambergris.

Can you share some of the more unusual resource material you've consulted or research you've undertaken?
It all seemed to be unusual. The time I spent on remote Stewart Island was very special. The trips to museums like Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology in the US was an amazing opportunity. I was lucky in so many ways to go to the places I did.

What message (if any) would you like readers to take away after reading Floating Gold?
Hmmm. I think I'd like readers to remember that the natural world is an amazing place, which is still filled with mystery. Google and Wikipedia cannot tell us everything. I wrote the book mostly because, after first watching that news segment in 2008, I logged onto my computer and expected to learn everything about ambergris that I needed to know in the next ten minutes. But there was almost no information out there. The few sources that did exist all seemed to contradict one another. I wrote the book simply because no one else had. There are still mysteries out there. And many of them are wonderful.

The ending of Floating Gold was one of the best non-fiction endings I've read in years!  But I've gotta ask, (I have to know) yes, or no?
No.  But I would rather say: not yet. One thing that the book sort of acknowledges is that nothing really ends, or not as neatly as many books would have you believe anyway. (Tracey breathes a sigh of relief.  The suspense was doing my head in.  You'll have to read the book to know what I mean, no spoilers here.)
The Founding Fish
John McPhee
one of Christopher's
fav books

What are some of your favourite books/authors?
I read everything. In the non-fiction category, I loved anything and everything by an American writer called John McPhee. He has a very kind and inquisitive view of the world and writes beautifully. One of my favorite of his books is The Founding Fish. Otherwise, I read a lot of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut. I like Paul Theroux's travel writing a lot. I'm enjoying David Quammen's new book Spillover. For a long time, I've read everything by the Beats: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, etc. I also have a secret weakness for war reporting (probably because I'd never by brave enough to do it myself), including my favorites, Michael Herr's Dispatches and John Laurence's The Cat from Hue.

What's next?  Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I'm doing things backward. Most people start small, trying to write for progressively larger magazines that more and more people read and that pay writers better. And then eventually they try to get a book deal. Instead, I wrote a book, and now I'm starting to write for a few magazines. Almost no one ever got rich writing a book. But it's possible to do okay writing magazine articles. You get paid more and they don't swallow up years of your life. It allows you to sort of screen subjects and potentially find another one with the breadth necessary to support a book-length project. Ironically, my book on ambergris was supposed to be a magazine article. I researched it for a few months and pitched it to editors everywhere I could think of pitching it. By the time I realized no one was interested in it, I'd written half the book.

Anything else you'd like to add?
If you think you've found some ambergris, you can let me know at ambergrishotline@gmail.com

Thanks so much Christopher!  I'm certainly more in awe of mother nature having read Floating Gold, so thank you for sharing your expertise and knowledge in an otherwise secretive industry.  It's fascinating stuff!

Would you like to comment?

  1. This Author is USA most untrusted truth twisting authors in the business. Do not tell him anything as your words will be twisted. Do not tell this so called author anything or you will regret it. His tabloid articles with city beat magazine are a perfect example. You have been warned about his ethical compass.

  2. Okay, I consider myself 'warned'. Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog.


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!