There are many occupations available today that can be rewarding for employees for various reasons. Some get to meet different people each day, others gain new skills and fulfil childhood dreams, while some are gratified by the fact that no two work days are the same.

This can definitely be said for working in museums and with collections items because you never know what you will encounter from one day to the next.

While re-organising some of the larger photographs in the museum archives recently, staff happened upon a rather intriguing image donated by Lisle Clements in 1992, of a couple proudly displaying a mysterious looking object.

The couple in the photograph identified as Edmond Robert Clements and his wife Cecelia, have seated between them, a large piece of ambergris, but no other clues as to when or where the find was made, nor who discovered it.


After tracking down descendants of the couple, Sandy Robinson recognised the photograph instantly as that of her grandparents, taken in the 1940s in the backyard of their Matapouri property.

Robinson confirmed the peculiar substance was found by her grandfather Edmond Clements at Matapouri, and fondly remembers the enormous piece of ambergris being displayed in the front entrance of their Matapouri home for many years where it gave off a distinctive odour.

The origins of this enigmatic substance, known variously as ambergris, grey amber and anbar confused mankind for centuries, however, being an experienced fisherman Edmond probably recognised his discovery and its significance.

The precise function and production of ambergris is still disputed but is thought to protect the whale from the sharp beaks of squid which are unable to be digested by the whale.

The sperm whale is the only whale species known to exude ambergris which is generated by about 1 per cent of these whales so is relatively rare.

Once expelled, it can float for years before making landfall. Freshly emitted, ambergris has a blackish colour, a flabby consistency and a nauseating odour.

Depending on the length of exposure at sea, its colour lightens over time becoming almost white. With age, its smell also changes becoming more refined, sweet and characteristically pleasant.

Ambergris has been prized for centuries for its peculiar qualities and it was a delicacy eaten by those who could afford it. It was rumoured that the unexpected death of Charles II in 1685 was from the introduction of poison into his favourite breakfast of "eggs with ambergris".

Well known to the ancient Egyptians the resinous substance was used as incense. Chinese Mandarins used ambergris to flavour tea of honoured guests and rich Arabs used it in their coffee, but it is best known for its use in the perfume industry as a fixative, allowing the scent to last much longer.

Although this unique substance may not be familiar to many, in recent times it has been used as an exotic additive to cocktails, chocolate and cakes. Ambergris has also been alluded to in prominent movies such as Batman, Master and Commander, Sweeney Todd and The Avengers.

Even though occasional discoveries of ambergris are still reported today on the Northland coast, few would match the magnitude of the hunk found by Edmond Clements at Matapouri, a portion of which is on display at Whangarei Museum.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.