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“Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold “Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris.            A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely it might as well appear nowhere. Kemp’s journey begins with an encounter on a New Zealand beach with a giant lump of faux ambergris—determined after much excitement to simply be lard—that inspires a comprehensive quest to seek out ambergris and its story. He takes us from the wild, rocky New Zealand coastline to Stewart Island, a remote, windswept island in the southern seas, to Boston and Cape Cod, and back again. Along the way, he tracks down the secretive collectors and traders who populate the clandestine modern-day ambergris trade.            Floating Gold is an entertaining and lively history that covers not only these precious gray lumps and those who covet them, but presents a highly informative account of the natural history of whales, squid, ocean ecology, and even a history of the perfume industry. Kemp’s obsessive curiosity is infectious, and eager readers will feel as though they have stumbled upon a precious bounty of this intriguing substance.


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“Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold “Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris.            A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely it might as well appear nowhere. Kemp’s journey begins with an encounter on a New Zealand beach with a giant lump of faux ambergris—determined after much excitement to simply be lard—that inspires a comprehensive quest to seek out ambergris and its story. He takes us from the wild, rocky New Zealand coastline to Stewart Island, a remote, windswept island in the southern seas, to Boston and Cape Cod, and back again. Along the way, he tracks down the secretive collectors and traders who populate the clandestine modern-day ambergris trade.            Floating Gold is an entertaining and lively history that covers not only these precious gray lumps and those who covet them, but presents a highly informative account of the natural history of whales, squid, ocean ecology, and even a history of the perfume industry. Kemp’s obsessive curiosity is infectious, and eager readers will feel as though they have stumbled upon a precious bounty of this intriguing substance.

30 review for Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris

  1. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Whale bile with rotting shrimp beaks. Who'd have thought that this, barfed up and washed ashore would become one of the world's most sought-after luxury goods, priced per ounce comparably to gold. Kemp became interested after riots on a beach where suspected ambergris washed up and New Zealand residents fought over it, only to find out it was lard that fell off of a shipping container vessel. Real ambergris is hunted by a very strange crew of territorial beachcombers and people who crawl in whal Whale bile with rotting shrimp beaks. Who'd have thought that this, barfed up and washed ashore would become one of the world's most sought-after luxury goods, priced per ounce comparably to gold. Kemp became interested after riots on a beach where suspected ambergris washed up and New Zealand residents fought over it, only to find out it was lard that fell off of a shipping container vessel. Real ambergris is hunted by a very strange crew of territorial beachcombers and people who crawl in whale carcasses, brokered by even odder people who subvert the Byzantine laws on export (legal in New Zealand, but not in Australia), and purchased by the elite perfume makers who use it as a fixative in brews like Chanel No. 5. Edited to add that the author contacted me immediately on Goodreads to scold me for the first two sentences and to ask if I had even read the book. Okay, ambergris is a product of whale intestines and it is excreted. Jesus. I certainly read your book, but you won't have to worry about me reading any more of them.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Heise

    I dragged myself through this to learn everything I could from it about ambergris-- and the big nugget of how ambergris is formed in whales was (mostly) worth it. But I also spent most of the book going "GROW UP AND GET A LIFE!" to the author. There's nothing wrong with the current trend of 'guy becomes a father and starts researching a non-fiction book at the same time' memoirs, some of them are quite good. But this was a stretched out New Yorker casual, in which the obsessed writer pursues some I dragged myself through this to learn everything I could from it about ambergris-- and the big nugget of how ambergris is formed in whales was (mostly) worth it. But I also spent most of the book going "GROW UP AND GET A LIFE!" to the author. There's nothing wrong with the current trend of 'guy becomes a father and starts researching a non-fiction book at the same time' memoirs, some of them are quite good. But this was a stretched out New Yorker casual, in which the obsessed writer pursues some manly dream treasure... Compare to Moby Duck or A Thousand Days of Wonder and you'll see what I mean.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Randall Wallace

    excellent book. i've read a few books on plain things like salt, and the color red and they were pretty good, they kept you excited about the subject. but i read this book on copper last year that was terrible. the guy decides to write a book on copper and after reading it you just don't care about copper anymore because he made it so boring. he wanders and around and finds nothing. zzz.. but why was this book good? i knew NOTHING about ambergris but keep hearing the word bandied around over the excellent book. i've read a few books on plain things like salt, and the color red and they were pretty good, they kept you excited about the subject. but i read this book on copper last year that was terrible. the guy decides to write a book on copper and after reading it you just don't care about copper anymore because he made it so boring. he wanders and around and finds nothing. zzz.. but why was this book good? i knew NOTHING about ambergris but keep hearing the word bandied around over the decades and always wondered what is that? kinda like frankincense, myrrh, ...or even diplomacy. these are words few people use anymore. so the author mr kemp tells you what he learned and when he walks around all over the place looking for ambergris it's not so boring that you fall asleep. ambergris is not an easy topic. it can look and smell like many things to many people, so it's hard to write about. but this was a very good job. sometimes you go to a party where you have to entertain others apolitcally and you need an interesting non-charged subject to keep the conversation from lilting. this book would be perfect for that. i read this book because of peak oil. soon we will have to do without fossil fuels and so basic things not made in a chem lab will become important - like ambergris, salt, pepper, natural dyes, etc. it's a good time to learn about all the natural things that will be needed soon as we all travel less and use less and create more community while our economy localizes.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alice

    For a book about how little is known of ambergris, this was about 150 pages too long. There was so much repetition it bordered on the ridiculous. And I wasn't grabbed by the 'personal quest' story that Kemp tried to weave through the scientific stuff - it felt way too forced. For a book about how little is known of ambergris, this was about 150 pages too long. There was so much repetition it bordered on the ridiculous. And I wasn't grabbed by the 'personal quest' story that Kemp tried to weave through the scientific stuff - it felt way too forced.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    A very interesting topic, ambergris, which is an extremely valuable item that continues to be created and can be found, but not through big industry. Ambergris collectors tend toward the secretive, as many imply in the book that there are ways to make things easier when searching. It seems that one way is mentioned a few times in the book – to use dogs. This points up the issue I saw in the book – the author wrote this as a combination of narrative of his search for ambergris and the story, alon A very interesting topic, ambergris, which is an extremely valuable item that continues to be created and can be found, but not through big industry. Ambergris collectors tend toward the secretive, as many imply in the book that there are ways to make things easier when searching. It seems that one way is mentioned a few times in the book – to use dogs. This points up the issue I saw in the book – the author wrote this as a combination of narrative of his search for ambergris and the story, along with the history. The narrative, though, has been re-ordered to leave the most interesting interview, which contains most of the meat of the book, such as it is, in the last few pages. It’s a bit of a let down because the author has already described almost everything in the interview, except for the use of cars and motorbikes to rapidly beachcomb for ambergris. The use of trained dogs is mentioned, but this is not explored like most other topical cul de sacs he describes (including eating some). This loose thread was odd given the limited information that is actually presented – there is a lot of repetition because of the secrecy around the product. I know a lot more about ambergris than I knew before reading the book. It was just an OK experience getting there though.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    While living with his family in New Zealand, Christopher Kemp becomes obsessed with ambergris, a rare substance that is essentially the byproduct of a fatally constipated sperm whale that occasionally washes up on his local beaches. Thusly, he begins a quixotic pursuit to discover a smelly piece of ambergris of his own while regaling the reader with the history of man’s relationship with these pricey fickle feces. The subject matter is fascinating as well as Kemp’s journey into the shadow world While living with his family in New Zealand, Christopher Kemp becomes obsessed with ambergris, a rare substance that is essentially the byproduct of a fatally constipated sperm whale that occasionally washes up on his local beaches. Thusly, he begins a quixotic pursuit to discover a smelly piece of ambergris of his own while regaling the reader with the history of man’s relationship with these pricey fickle feces. The subject matter is fascinating as well as Kemp’s journey into the shadow world of the international ambergris market, yet the book’s occasionally random organization doesn’t do itself any favors. In addition, Kemp mentions that ambergris also plays a role in rituals within the Arab World and is used in traditional medicine in East Asia, but he never pursues background on either of these applications, preferring instead to focus on ambergris’ uses amongst Western cultures in perfume and in cooking. Though it has its faults and omissions, Floating Gold is a completely amusing read, and, since I am unaware of any other material on the subject, if you’re interested in ambergris, this is the place to start.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    Mildly interesting book about a fairly fascinating subject--ambergris, the substance that still today is almost as valuable as gold. It forms in the impacted intestines of a small percentage of sperm whales and has to float around in the ocean for several years before it's worth much. You can really only come upon it by chance, which contributes to its rarity. It has been used by the high-end perfume industry for hundreds of years and can't be duplicated synthetically. All that is fascinating st Mildly interesting book about a fairly fascinating subject--ambergris, the substance that still today is almost as valuable as gold. It forms in the impacted intestines of a small percentage of sperm whales and has to float around in the ocean for several years before it's worth much. You can really only come upon it by chance, which contributes to its rarity. It has been used by the high-end perfume industry for hundreds of years and can't be duplicated synthetically. All that is fascinating stuff. Endlessly repetitive descriptions of the author walking along a beach futilely looking for ambergris are not. I very much enjoyed learning about ambergris which I knew nothing about before reading this book. However, the book seemed rather disorganized and I was losing interest at the end. You can only read so many descriptions of a chunk of ambergris before your eyes start skimming the page. Two stars for the writing but I'm bumping it up to three for the subject matter.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dennis McDonald

    A meandering and personal exploration of the history and industry surrounding ambergris. Says a lot about the people still touched by this odd whale generated substance. History and a personal journey are intermingled with profiles of ambergris seekers and those involved in the highly specialized and sparsely populated industry on the periphery of the perfume industry. It's an oddly touching book. Unusual. A meandering and personal exploration of the history and industry surrounding ambergris. Says a lot about the people still touched by this odd whale generated substance. History and a personal journey are intermingled with profiles of ambergris seekers and those involved in the highly specialized and sparsely populated industry on the periphery of the perfume industry. It's an oddly touching book. Unusual.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This was one of those really well written non-fiction books that had me enthralled. More about the history than the science of Ambergris...possibly because by the sound of it apart from the perfume companies no one has been able to investigate it much. Fascinating, will keep an eye out next time I'm up the 'beach that will now remain nameless' incase I find some!!!! This was one of those really well written non-fiction books that had me enthralled. More about the history than the science of Ambergris...possibly because by the sound of it apart from the perfume companies no one has been able to investigate it much. Fascinating, will keep an eye out next time I'm up the 'beach that will now remain nameless' incase I find some!!!!

  10. 5 out of 5

    UChicagoLaw

    "A fascinating, if slightly self-indulgent, history of what the author learned about this valuable product of the digestive system of sperm whales in the course of trying (unsuccessfully) to find some. The subject claimed a separate chapter in Moby Dick, and this new book brings readers up to date." - R.H. Helmholz "A fascinating, if slightly self-indulgent, history of what the author learned about this valuable product of the digestive system of sperm whales in the course of trying (unsuccessfully) to find some. The subject claimed a separate chapter in Moby Dick, and this new book brings readers up to date." - R.H. Helmholz

  11. 5 out of 5

    B

    Enjoyed reading about the history of ambergris and the science involved, along with details about the writer's own journey to find his own little piece of smelly gold. There are really great excerpts from books, newspapers, letters and journals from the past that are just fascinating. Some great photos the author took of ambergris samples are there as well. Enjoyed reading about the history of ambergris and the science involved, along with details about the writer's own journey to find his own little piece of smelly gold. There are really great excerpts from books, newspapers, letters and journals from the past that are just fascinating. Some great photos the author took of ambergris samples are there as well.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Juno

    A story of an obsession and window into a strange world. Perhaps a bit long in the middle but overall I found it well written and a fascinating sidebar to what I know of the art and science of perfumery

  13. 4 out of 5

    Susan Gallagher

    Sadly, I know less about ambergris after reading this than before.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    A great social/natural history in the vein of Kurlansky's Cod. Very readable. Where are the end/footnotes? A great social/natural history in the vein of Kurlansky's Cod. Very readable. Where are the end/footnotes?

  15. 5 out of 5

    S.L. Berry

    A good introduction that was very readable.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Marilee

    Another good nonfiction - you will learn a lot reading this book

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bea Lathrop

    Interesting book. Now I know more than I ever did before about ambergris and where it comes from. The author was quite tenacious in his research (I was rooting for him).

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nick Allen

    Loved it, I'm not just going to look for shells on the beach anymore!! Whale poo!! Loved it, I'm not just going to look for shells on the beach anymore!! Whale poo!!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    My kind of thing - that subgenre of Incredibly Specific Non-Fiction. But some particularly nice writing here.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Marion

    Learned more about the spermatozoa whale.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mander Pander

    Get your hair blown back by whale shit. When you read it you'll know what I'm talking about, and we can clink our glasses but also do the OMG YIKES face at each other. Let me know when you're done. Get your hair blown back by whale shit. When you read it you'll know what I'm talking about, and we can clink our glasses but also do the OMG YIKES face at each other. Let me know when you're done.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Claudia

    If you've ever owned one of the perfumes or colognes priced at the very high end, there is a chance that it may have been manufactured with ambergris. Ambergris is a waxy, fragrant substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales. As the whales eat millions of squid, the indigestible beaks can cause irritation and the bile ducts exude the substance to coat and ease the sharp beaks through the tract. But sometimes, they get stuck and grow larger with more and more coverings until either the m If you've ever owned one of the perfumes or colognes priced at the very high end, there is a chance that it may have been manufactured with ambergris. Ambergris is a waxy, fragrant substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales. As the whales eat millions of squid, the indigestible beaks can cause irritation and the bile ducts exude the substance to coat and ease the sharp beaks through the tract. But sometimes, they get stuck and grow larger with more and more coverings until either the mass is expelled or - yep, the whale dies of constipation. Yes, it's expelled whale poop and depending on the color, has spent years, even decades, in the ocean which is changing it's chemical makeup so that it gains a ambiguous scent that searchers can't even describe. Depending on it's age - black and soft is relatively recent and the softer grays into white are the oldest - the scent also changes. Descriptions range from tobacco-y, old wood or musk, furniture polish, a sweet almost earthy scent, a marine or sea water, to a 'more fecal' odor. Whatever it smells like, it is a cloying scent that will stay with you and that is what makes it so valuable to perfumers. That stay-with-you ability that bonds with the fragrant oils and your skin. Kemp spent two years not only searching the nearby beaches of New Zealand for ambergris tossed on the shore by the tides, but the same amount of time researching the subject. It's a nearly unknown substance as well as a rather suspicious group of sellers and dedicated hunters that prowl miles of remote shorelines twice a day after high tide looking for those pieces of dark gray or is it light gray or even chalk-white rock that have those distinctive odors. Rare are the large pieces since they mostly break up during their ocean voyages. But finding a piece is like finding a solid gold nugget since high quality ambergris is in the same price range, even higher depending on the color. Before you go travelling to beaches in search of your own piece of floating gold, be aware of the regulations covering ambergris in your country. In the U.S., ownership and trade in ambergris is strictly prohibited by the Endangered Species Act. In Australia, the import and export for commercial purposes is banned with additional regulations in various states. But, in turn, realize that the author spent two years searching in areas that are known for having ambergris deposited on their shorelines and he never found a single piece. Delightful book on an interesting, rare subject that most people won't even be aware exists. 2020-155

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Hirsch

    Nature is infinitely strange and surprising. Ambergris is yet another example of this maxim. What is ambergris, you ask? Supposedly deriving its name from "amber grease," this is a waxy substance that builds up in the intestinal tracts of whales, causing blockages that prove fatal for the animals, and profitable for humans. Why would anyone want this waxy intestinal buildup? It turns out that ambergris works as an unparalleled fixative in the perfume industry, and it also emits an indescribable Nature is infinitely strange and surprising. Ambergris is yet another example of this maxim. What is ambergris, you ask? Supposedly deriving its name from "amber grease," this is a waxy substance that builds up in the intestinal tracts of whales, causing blockages that prove fatal for the animals, and profitable for humans. Why would anyone want this waxy intestinal buildup? It turns out that ambergris works as an unparalleled fixative in the perfume industry, and it also emits an indescribable scent that has sort of made it into the "truffle of the sea" for the connoisseur with a finely tuned palate and a keen olfactory bulb. It's an interesting subject, and would have made a solid, ten-thousand word article. Christopher Kemp does what he can to tease a book-length work out of ambergris, but the strain starts to show by the third act. He spends a lot of time combing the beach, smelling various clumps that he finds in the sand, and interviewing recalcitrant ambergris dealers who stonewall him because they have trade secrets and clients to protect (understandable, though Kemp's persistence suggests that he has a harder time understanding this than the reader). Even more annoying, though, is the author's desire, perhaps need, to center himself in the narrative where it's not necessary. This sort of egocentric attitude has poisoned the Humanities for some time, but has apparently creeped like fruiting mycelia into the hard sciences (Kemp is a molecular biologist). Ambergris is unquestionably interesting. How you might feel about searching for it, or struggling to describe its scent, or how your wife feels about your feelings about ambergris, is frankly less compelling. Maybe I'm being a little too hard on the guy and his book, but I'm getting tired of this navel-gazing trend in field journalism, where the author is supposed to be, you know, studying the field rather than his reflection.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gina

    It did have the information I was interested in, but reading this book to get that information was almost like the author’s search for ambergris. Disorganized, judgmental/disconnected, repetitive, and full of complaints. Overall, unfortunately disappointing. It could use a good reorganization and trimming, and would be much better for it. Also, a note that this is a personal story and oddly organized natural history combined.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anna Wylie

    Kemp has a flare for a stylistic ending - noticed them on numerous sections, chapters, and, of course, the actual ending. He clearly tried to tackle his topic from all approaches, however this is where I find the book hard to rate higher. There were far too many large inclusions of historical writing and much more creative writing than I expected given his biology background. I felt like he couldn't decide if he wanted to write a history, a self insert philosophical treatise on ambergris, a trav Kemp has a flare for a stylistic ending - noticed them on numerous sections, chapters, and, of course, the actual ending. He clearly tried to tackle his topic from all approaches, however this is where I find the book hard to rate higher. There were far too many large inclusions of historical writing and much more creative writing than I expected given his biology background. I felt like he couldn't decide if he wanted to write a history, a self insert philosophical treatise on ambergris, a travel memoir, or a scientific piece. I learned quite a bit about ambergris, so in that he was successful but I would find this book difficult to recommend to others I think.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Steven Allen

    Picked this book up from my local library to see if it was worth adding to my personal home reference library. Not a bad book but nothing in this book that I could not find on the internet (other than Wikipedia).

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ned Bartlett

    For what is probably the most specialised book I’ve ever read, it’s immensely enjoyable and riveting. It is the book that will likely turn a passing interest into somewhat of an obsession. Im off to the beach...

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sandi

    I really wanted to like this book because of its naturally intriguing topic: a substance both disgusting and refined, highly-prized and cast-off, with a long history but still shrouded in mystery. Maybe I just like contradictions. The book had good points including the author’s willingness to doggedly pursue his subject. I give Kemp credit for visiting New Zealand coastlines, the backrooms of musty museums, and secretive collectors. Besides traveling, Kemp also took us with him to experience look I really wanted to like this book because of its naturally intriguing topic: a substance both disgusting and refined, highly-prized and cast-off, with a long history but still shrouded in mystery. Maybe I just like contradictions. The book had good points including the author’s willingness to doggedly pursue his subject. I give Kemp credit for visiting New Zealand coastlines, the backrooms of musty museums, and secretive collectors. Besides traveling, Kemp also took us with him to experience looking for ambergris, smelling it, and even tasting it--that’s some level of commitment. He also resurrected historical texts and tidbits from as early as the 1600s to give a view of how the reputation, use, and knowledge of this substance has changed. All this seems really interesting, right? The problem is that nothing in the book seemed to hang together. The author kept repeating facts such as that ambergris is not, as is commonly assumed, whale vomit, and a few times revisited the question of whether or not major perfume companies still use it without coming to a clear conclusion about it. The order of the chapters were (mostly, it seemed) chronological in the author’s own search to find out all he could about ambergris, and in this way, it did make sense that he’d think about or address the same issues multiple times, but the problem was that, organized in this way, I would have expected more interesting/personable detail about his personal life. It seemed to model itself on a Mary Roach-style, where we get an insider’s viewpoint as he/she digs into esoteric stuff that normal people can’t access--like cat food recipes and embalming methods--behind closed doors, but interpreted in a fun and approachable way. At it’s best, it gives the impression that we were traveling along with an adventurous friend with quirky observations and humor. But Kemp doesn’t really give us that. Instead, I had the vague and uncomfortable impression that his wife didn’t approve of his project, that he dragged his family around remote rainy beaches, that he may have bought a good quantity of ambergris partly as an investment that didn’t pan out because he never found any himself, that he was angry at people who didn’t give him interviews, and that he’s really just interested in finding treasure rather than exploring it. If he had infused any of this with a sense of humor or personality, the whole book might have worked. But, as is, I get the impression that I wouldn’t have liked hanging out with this guy. The book left me wondering--how would I edit this book if it were my own? I’m not sure I have the personality to carry my readers through a book on my own research process either, which is also sometimes boring as I hit walls, wander back and forth in my focus, contact people and get no answer, travel places with big expectations that don’t pan out--I think that’s the experience of pretty much every researcher. So, perhaps I would have rearranged these notes into subject-oriented chapters, such as one on the origin, one on its use in perfume, one on whalers finding it...and so on. That way, perhaps his subject could have shone more on its own. Otherwise, it’s more “floating”--from one point to another--than “gold.”

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum

    What is ambergris?From the old French ambre gris meaning "grey amber", Ambergris is a grayish waxy substance found only in the intestines of 1% of sperm whales. Sperm whales cannot digest the beaks (mouths) of squids, and these accumulate in their stomachs, triggering the slow layering of squid beaks with concrete like faeces to create a hard ball that whale waste can pass. Once secreted, it can float for years on ocean currents before finally washing ashore. Ambergris is incredibly valuable and What is ambergris?From the old French ambre gris meaning "grey amber", Ambergris is a grayish waxy substance found only in the intestines of 1% of sperm whales. Sperm whales cannot digest the beaks (mouths) of squids, and these accumulate in their stomachs, triggering the slow layering of squid beaks with concrete like faeces to create a hard ball that whale waste can pass. Once secreted, it can float for years on ocean currents before finally washing ashore. Ambergris is incredibly valuable and is used as a fixative in the perfume industry although was also used in the recipes of the rich many hundreds of years ago. Review I've always been fascinated and intrigued by ambergris, both how it is formed and why it is so highly valued. After reading Floating Gold by Christopher Kemp, all my questions have been answered, and I have a new-found respect for this substance and the whales that produce it. Kemp has a natural and engaging writing style, mixing his personal search for ambergris with all manner of information sprinkled in between. Despite the non-fiction topic, I was never distracted or bored reading Floating Gold. In fact, the ending made me exclaim out loud, and was probably the BEST ending in a non-fiction book I've read in years! (I'm not going to spoil it for anybody wanting to check it out though). There's also a lot to enjoy for Kiwi readers too, as much takes place in New Zealand and Stewart Island. Floating Gold is full of interesting tidbits, including that Elizabeth I was more than partial to ambergris, her cooks including it in quail dishes. I recall one of my favourite segments was when Kemp mentioned: "...a French perfumer whose nose was so sensitive that he could smell a vial of jasmine essence and identify not only the country in which the flowers were grown but whether the machines they were processed in were made of aluminium or stainless steel."- Page 137 How incredible! Floating Gold is full of amazing and incredible information, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this secretive and widely unknown world.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dave Johnson

    So this has literally taken over a year to read. :) Floating Gold is sometimes good book about ambergris: a whale byproduct that is roughly $12,000 a pound. It's also a perfume ingredient with almost mythical renown. First, this book is really informative on the subject. If you want to know anything at all about ambergris, this is really the penultimate guide on the subject. Kemp writes it partially as a scientist, partially historian, partially novelist, and partially an autobiographer. So there So this has literally taken over a year to read. :) Floating Gold is sometimes good book about ambergris: a whale byproduct that is roughly $12,000 a pound. It's also a perfume ingredient with almost mythical renown. First, this book is really informative on the subject. If you want to know anything at all about ambergris, this is really the penultimate guide on the subject. Kemp writes it partially as a scientist, partially historian, partially novelist, and partially an autobiographer. So there's a lot going on, and it sounds like it might be a strange mix, but it usually works. The history and science of it are pretty obvious, and he does do a good job at unraveling it in bits and pieces so as to not overwhelm the reader. The autobiographical aspect was probably one of the best parts. It is presented as the author's quest to find ambergris on his own. Because it's so rare, you find yourself really rooting for the guy to find some washed up on the shore. The biggest part of the book that doesn't fit as well is the novelist side. While he is narrating his journey, he tries to use language that sounds more akin to a novel than a non-fiction. At first I thought nothing of it, but after a while, I realized that it's not that good, and he goes off on too many description details. At times I honestly thought that I had heard enough about the details of the coastline of New Zealand. Details are fine--when they're important. But I soon learned when I could just skim or skip of the material and get to the parts that really mattered. And that brings me to my biggest criticism. It seems like there needed to be a larger edit of this book. Because once I reached the 2/3s mark of the book, I put it down for a long time because I realized I knew all that the book was going to tell me about ambergris. And I was mostly correct. There were a couple of new things, but most of the rest of the book seemed like filler. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I learned a LOT about ambergris that I had never known, and I took notes fervently throughout the book. I'm grateful for all Kemps work here. But it could have just used some more tweaks.

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