Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report
Being a treasure hunter of the highest order, I was among the very first to receive word – via treasure-y chatrooms – of UK’er Ken Wilman’s finding of an odd-looking, smelly chunk of amber-colored gunk that had washed up on his home beach at Lancashire. For the record, Ken’s bulbous beachcombing oddity was technically found by Ken’s bulldog. In the treasure realm, we like to keep such things perfectly straight.
Despite being put-off, at first, by the oddity’s off-smell, his pup’s abiding interest in the “stupid thing” caused Ken to haul it home. And his life took a fiscal swing he never saw coming.
Turned out, he was the proud owner of as large a gob of sperm whale ambergris as anyone in Jolly Old England had ever seen. The treasure side became more apparent as offers poured in from ravenous perfume makers in France, willing to pay over $180,000 for the hunka chunka burning whale vomit.
More on that upchuck thing in a minute. First, I have to talk about my sickness over this story. It wasn’t that many decades past I found what I now have no doubt was a massive chunk of ambergris. I wish I was BS’ing here. I ain’t.
I perfectly recall finding the weird-shaped mass while fishing in Holgate. There was my initial confusion over its whatness, its slight gushiness when pressed, its waterloggish heaviness, and, most memorably, its awfulish odor – which led to me launch it as far as I could, side-arming it, grenade-like. I even recall sand washing my hands of the entire matter. Hypothetically speaking, it was worth tens of thousands of clams. I can’t even bring myself to say “dollars.”
I’ve now done my homework, ex post facto.
Interestingly, many a report pegs ambergris as having a somewhat pleasant, even earthy (huh?) fragrance. Yeah, right. Typical armchair science-ing. I then read what actual picker-uppers had to say. The stink is palpably profound, especially when ambergris first washes ashore. The smell, by historic reckoning, gets better and better and finally irresistible the longer it remains ashore. But as to that fresh whiffiness, I peg it as smelling like either whale vomit or excrement, which are, un-ironically, the only two source possibilities.
There is debate over which end of the sperm whale issues ambergris. It’s accepted that the sperm whale keeps a stock of ambergris at the ready, in its digestive system. The cholesterol/bile stuff acts as a waxy encasement for jagged objects that can gouge and even permanently damage a whale’s innards. The swallowed beaks of octopus and squids are potentially catastrophic, should they become imbued within intestines and cause infections, a tad similar to a splinter in human skin.
It turns out that the best way to determine the anatomical source point of an ambergris chunk is size.
When a whale’s innards enwrap internal irritants, it does so using rather controlled amounts of ambergris, i.e. just enough to ready-wrap the jagged annoyances. Admittedly, in the case of a wild night’s intake of multiple squid – or maybe a single giant squid – ambergris gobs can get hefty. Still, we’re talking tennis ball-sized, at most. After all, the gobs still have to be comfortably vented, so to speak. And even though the likes of Preparation H is fish oil-based, I’m not sure even the brightest of whales have determined the benefits of grabbing a passing codfish to, uh, utilize when easing out a particularly large lump of ambergris. “Hey, Hal, can you grab a codfish and come over here a minute.” (Did I just write that!?)
Anyway, what about Ken’s bowling ball chunk of ambergris – and even larger gobs being found on beaches around the world?
No way is that scat. A whale would need an entire school of codfish … never mind.
Those payday plops of ambergris are surely upchuck. Further proof comes in the content. Small gobs of ambergris, not that uncommon a beach find, almost always contain squid beaks and jagged bone material. Mega-bombs of ambergris have nothing alien within, just coagulated cholesterol and bile ooze, as the whale’s innards made it.
My theory: It’s fully likely that sperm whales sometime get an intestinal overload of ambergris. Now and again, the leviathans simply have to loose their load. One study suggests that during prolonged squid-eating sessions, a whale’s ambergris supply grows like wild, meeting beak demands. However, when that whale sets sail for what might be a thousand-mile swim, a globe-sized wad of waxy stuff is nothing but dead weight. It’s chucked – up and out.
I’m going to wait until next week to rage about absurd laws that eat our freedoms for lunch, like the law which prohibits you from so much as picking up a piece of ambergris. But I want to play Bobby Brightnose by noting a study that shows that ambergris removed from slaughtered/murdered whales is NOT of commercial value. It’s purely the long-afloat form of beached ambergris that warrants bidding wars leading to values in excess of gold.
Get this: The profoundly impressive efforts to save the world’s whales has actually led to a marvelous increase in ambergris coming ashore. It’s actually a symbol of conservational success.
Finally, I would never ever suggest you keep a found gob of ambergris. I instead highly recommend you give it over to folks like me – for proper and honorable disposal, mind you.
RAIN-CLEANED ROADS: This past stormy Monday was just what the street-sweeping doctor ordered. The unhealthy dose of road salt that was laid down to cover our flirting with winter storm Nemo’s frozen side was adroitly washed away by waves of moderate rain. Admittedly, all the demelting material doled out by the DOT and friends will eventually end up in the bay. However, that on-the-move mineral slurry is not nearly as ecologically detrimental this time of year, especially in the face of the frequent bay stirs we’ve been getting via storms. Nor’easters are experts at essentially purging the bay of built-up badness, via high tides and winds.
Of course, I perpetually fret over the well being of winter flounder, an in-trouble species that is currently mudded under in the bay. Although road salt runoff becomes diluted in the bay, and also tends to stay fairly high in the water column, the ongoing and (to me) growingly calamitous shallowing of the bay means there’s less water column to act as protection for our overwintering bottom species, including blue crabs.
It’s never a simple read when you’re studying an entire ecosystem. Making this winter’s read of the bay akin to mulling over an in-depth thesis on quantum physics is the inescapable and insidious Sandy factors. A bit like a nuclear attack, her fallout is lurking somewhere in the shadowiest recesses of our waterways.
Speaking of which, I’ve had a number of science-laced people echoing each other’s fears of the canned toxins that were very likely washed into the bay during the superstorm. They’re talking the common likes of paint cans, acetone and turpentine containers, gas cans, insecticide and herbicide holders, degreaser and detergent cans – you name it. Those containers had been stored under/beside homes, mine among them. Post-flood, the contained chemicals were nowhere to be found. It sure seems they are now sleeping with the fishes. It’s only a short matter of time before the containers undergo leakage and in-water decay.
I’m still convinced that the bottom presence of household chemicals is why the clams in Little Egg Harbor remain contaminated – and our waters remain condemned for shellfishing. Sure, clams purge more slowly in winter, but why are the bivalves in the northern sections of Barnegat Bay already cleaned up and edible?
In our parts, we have to factor in the dangerously low bay water exchange rate during tidal changes. The ocean/bay interplay on the south end of LBI is literally shutting down, via shallowing and shoaling.
For some bizarre reason, the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) in Little Egg Harbor is somehow not considered essential in the eyes of the feds. I kid you not. The channel adjacent to LBI, from Beach Haven to Little Egg Inlet, is not an ICW stretch that falls under strict federal, must-remain-open guidelines.
Adding to the closing off of Little Egg Harbor is the obvious westward migration of the Holgate wilderness area. That swinging tail of southern LBI is redirecting two-miles of channel-blocking material toward the Sheepshead sedges. A hookup twixt Holgate and those sedges would mean boat traffic would have to go all the way to the mainland to then swing back out to the inlet. One would think that’s yet another reason something has to be done to manually stop Holgate’s erosion-based trek to the west.
WHADDA RIDE: I got e-mailed some photos of a Seaside Heights amusement ride carthat washed ashore in Beach Haven on Saturday. I first got a call about the wayward “rocket” at my Surf City office but by the time I got on-scene the fancifully-colored, missile-shaped kiddie ride “wagon” had fallen into the grubby little hands of some opportunistic beachcomber. Hell, I wanted it to fall into my grubby little beachcombing hands.
The ride piece, albeit a bit sea-battered – is not just a cool piece of amusement park art but also a Superstorm Sandy memento of the highest order.
Hey, if you happened to be the one who picked it up, let me know. I’ll get over my jealousy. Some more photos of it would be cool.
If I wasn’t so damned energy drained, I could see me penning a lovable kid’s book about the bright little rocket ship’s greatest ride – launched by a superstorm and sliding along underwater, meeting sharks and Nemo and such. I’m guessin’ I wouldn’t be able to use cuss words or crass political rhetoric, right? Ah, screw it. You can write it.
MONUMENTAL BAY FIX: This week’s sarcastically spoken, “Yeah, that’s got prayer of succeeding” nod goes to the just-announced plan to survey, then clean, every bit of Barnegat Bay, including each lagoon and all navigable creeks attached to the huge bay. It is part of our fairly-cool governor’s promise to make the bay right as rain, post-Sandy – though C.C. had vowed a clean Barnegat Bay long before it was stormed under.
I first got wind of the planned survey and cleanup through a trailered survey boat parked in Surf City. It’s an official-looking hydrological research craft. After a few calls from a SandPaper writer, it turns out the boat will soon be among many scouring the bay bottom, checking for shoaling and debris. (See related story.)
We’ll be doing a story on it – and, hopefully, riding along to see how a channel bottom study is done. I’m guessing it’s not a helluva lot different than scanning things the way we do when fishing, albeit a lot more sophisticated.
What I’m next wondering is what happens when something major is found. It’ll be marked, GPS-wise, but what happens in the case of debris that might be on the move?
Also, what happens when they prove that the shoaling of channels is critically bad? What are the dredging options? We’re not that far from the annual re-placing and repositioning of buoys and channel markers – and boating season.
Despite the speedy commencement of this project, it seems to me it could take a year of Sundays to properly survey and tidy up, say, just the lagoon complex of Beach Haven West. And the state isn’t going to get persnickety about who, technically, owns the lagoons. The state intends on surveying everything, saving towns tons of dough in the all-inclusive process. After you’ve added in loads of equally dense lagoon communities, this survey/cleanup is gonna be yet another chore at the shore.
I’m hoping this might also be a premier wakeup call regarding the bay’s eutrophication – its slow and deadly filling in from the bottom up. For sure, it’ll turn the existing nautical maps on their ears, as depth readings bear out the shoaling and shallowing.
On the upside, even if the Great Barnegat Bay Cleanup comes up a tad short of its assigned goal to totally brighten the bay, the effort should be worth its weight in ecological gold. We’ll get a read on the bay’s bottom like nothing before. In much the same way many a bruised and battered home will end up a far, far better place, post repairs, the bay could also be lookin’ a lot sweeter and neater if the bulk of bottom debris and sediment is hauled off.
Of course, there are eco-fears that the state could get sloppy, especially when it comes to the emergency relocating of dredge debris, a.k.a. spoils. There’s no doubt the cleanup will uncover way more debris and sediment than it knows what to do with. I hope Ohio is still takin’ what we’re givin’. That state took the bulk of our insane amount of Sandy debris. Screwing up the bay banks and estuaries with spoils is akin to throwing the bay baby out with the bathwater. It’s essential to keep the cleanup clean.
Below: Despite repeated efforts to train Fifi as the first duck hunting cat ...