It was spring, and Gary Williams and his wife, Angela, were taking a stroll along one of their favorite stretches of beach: Middleton Sands in Lancashire, England. It’s a strip that’s popular with hikers and dog walkers – even sunbathers when the weather is good. But as the Williamses made their way across the beach, they spotted something strange – and, as it turns out, insanely valuable.
On that April day, though, Angela and Gary were first bowled over by a truly disgusting stink. Gary later described that odor as being like rotting fish. Ew! But that didn’t put the intrepid duo off – oh, no.
You see, the couple followed the unpleasant smell to find its source. What did they discover? Well, a pale lump not quite the size of a football. It had a waxy texture, too. And, best of all, the Williamses actually had an idea of what the mystery – and very smelly – object could be.
Gary and Angela had read about similar finds in the news and thought they may have stumbled across a rare marine substance called ambergris. From time to time, lumps of ambergris – or whale vomit, as it’s sometimes called – are washed ashore to be found by beachcombers. And the couple covered their find in a scarf before taking it with them.
Then, once the pair had got the suspected ambergris back to their house, Gary used his fisherman’s scales to weigh the lump. It was almost 3.5 pounds. And this made Gary and Angela even more excited about their find. Why? Because they knew that a man had found a chunk of ambergris on the coast at Morecambe, not far from where they were.
That other lump had come in at around twice the size of the one that Angela and Gary had unearthed. Even better, it had been valued at a hefty $155,000 – which could mean that the Williamses’ own piece of ambergris could fetch a staggering $65,000. That’s a lot of money for some so-called vomit!
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Gary described his lucrative discovery, saying, “It smells too bad, though – it’s a very distinctive smell, like a cross between squid and farmyard manure. It feels like a rock-hard rubber ball. Its texture is like wax, like a candle. When you touch it, you get wax sticking to your fingers.” Sounds pretty gross to us…
But what exactly is ambergris? Well, its alternative name, whale vomit, isn’t strictly accurate, but it does provide a clue. Yep, although the substance is created by whales, it isn’t actually vomit. It’s something else altogether, and it’s produced by only one species on the planet.
That’s the sperm whale – a magnificent beast that’s found in oceans and seas around the world, including Britain’s coastal waters. Members of the species can grow to a staggering 67 feet long and tip the scales at up to 63 tons – which is obviously pretty massive.
At one time, these whales were commonly hunted for their blubber, which was used to make everything from candles and soap to machine oil and pencils. Ambergris was also harvested. Shockingly, as many as one million whales were slaughtered as a consequence during the 19th and 20th centuries. But there’s some good news. The sperm whale population has been slowly recovering since hunting was outlawed in the 1980s.
And that’s fortunate for fishermen, too, as tracking down these creatures could sometimes be a dangerous business. In 1820 a sperm whale with a claimed length of 85 feet rammed the Essex, a vessel from Nantucket, Massachusetts. That led the ship to sink, and her 20 crewmen were left stranded in small lifeboats in the southern Pacific with little in the way of supplies.
The men were at sea for 95 days, during which time they ate the corpses of 12 of their fellow sailors. Horrifying! Only eight men survived the ordeal. And the legend of this tragedy lives on. Herman Melville is said to have based his classic novel Moby Dick on the real-life incident.
But while harvesting blubber was the main motive for hunting sperm whales, ambergris was also highly prized. It’s been used in perfume, for instance. The ancient Egyptians used it as a kind of incense, while Europeans in the Middle Ages believed it had medicinal properties.
You may be wondering, though, how such a horribly smelly lump is used in the production of perfume! Well, only freshly created ambergris has this unpleasant odor. It’s a lot nicer to sniff as it gets older.
That still leaves one question unanswered, though. Namely, what makes the sperm whale create such a strange substance? Well, scientists believe that it’s connected to this vast mammal’s feeding habits. Sperm whales love to eat giant squid, and they have hard beaks that cannot be digested. So, the whales vomit most of the beaks out – although not all of them.
Those beaks that travel into a whale’s digestive system are then covered in ambergris as a protection for the animal’s intestines and stomach. That ambergris is actually formed from liquid that comes out of the bile duct in the whale’s innards. And we don’t recommend reading this next bit while you’re eating. Sometimes, you see, ambergris will be discharged by the whale alongside its feces. Yep, pretty disgusting! Occasionally, though, it exits via the mouth – hence the idea of whale vomit.
Interestingly, ambergris is only created very slowly, over periods of years. Apparently, not all sperm whales produce the stuff, either – maybe only 1 percent. But if you still want to try your luck, head to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where you’ll likely find ambergris, although most commercial gathering of the substance happens in the Caribbean.
And even if a sperm whale doesn’t create ambergris, it’s still extraordinary. These creatures can dive to an astonishing depth of around 7,400 feet – or not far off a mile and a half. Another distinguishing feature of the sperm whale is that it has a massive brain – bigger than that of any other animal on Earth, in fact. Just one of these organs weighs five times more than any belonging to a human.
So, use your own gray matter, and keep an eye out for ambergris when you’re next on the beach. There’s a reason why it’s sometimes referred to as floating gold! Remember, though, that most lumpy things that smell of poop probably are just that…
As for Gary and Angela? Well, they have plans for any potential windfall. With what might be called typically British restraint, Gary told the Daily Mirror, “If [the ambergris] is worth a lot of money, it will go a long way towards buying us a static caravan. It would be a dream come true.”
But what of other epic discoveries of this kind? Well, a man in North Carolina also stumbled across something unusual on a beach. And this particular object was so strange that it looked like it wasn’t of this world. Not only was it very real, though, but it was also a little frightening to contemplate.
The man made this outlandish find on the 26-mile-long Topsail Island, which is located just off of the coast of North Carolina. Like other so-called barrier islands found in New England and many parts of the world, this site is believed to have been formed around 18,000 years ago. After all, this was when rising sea levels from the end of the last Ice Age flooded areas behind coastal sand deposits.
Consequently, barrier islands are known for their beautiful beaches and unique animal habitat, and Topsail Island is no exception. In fact, it’s particularly renowned for great fishing and also acts as a major nesting site for sea turtles.
It was amid such natural diversity, then, that local resident Denny Bland was walking along the beach in October 2015 when he came upon something strange. In fact, what he had discovered was a gigantic tooth almost as big as his hand.
Fortunately, the local Aurora Fossil Museum knew exactly what the tooth was. And when Bland realized what it belonged to, he could barely believe it.
As it turned out, the tooth came from a Megalodon – an enormous and perhaps mercifully extinct shark. This beast – whose name quite literally means “big tooth” in Greek – roamed the oceans between around 16 million and 2.6 million years ago. Moreover, during its reign, it was the planet’s largest predator.
After discovering what the tooth belonged to, Bland said he felt like a lottery winner. He explained, “I couldn’t have gotten a million dollars and been any happier. Even the small ones, if you see a small shark’s tooth, it just excites the heck out of you.”
Although scientists don’t know the shark species’ exact size, it is believed to have been somewhere between 52 and 59 feet long and is thought to have weighed in at between 70 and 100 tons. This would make the frightening behemoth three times as long and 30 times as heavy as the great white shark, which is today’s largest living predatory shark.
Indeed, as paleontologist Chuck Ciampaglio pointed out, the Megalodon was much larger than the Tyrannosaurus rex. In his own words, “T. rex wouldn’t have a chance against this thing. T. rex’s head would fit in this guy’s mouth.”
And it’s easy to see why he’d think this way. Because although no examples of the Megalodon’s fossilized jaws have yet been found, a scientific reconstruction based on the great white shark puts them at a minimum of seven feet across.
In turn, these massive jaws contained a total of 276 teeth arranged in five rows. And if that’s not scary enough, consider the fact that they were also serrated much like a bread knife, meaning that each tooth had a saw-like edge on both sides.
Furthermore, it is estimated that the shark’s monstrous bite produced about 24,000 to 41,000 pounds of force – the most powerful of any creature in history. This would have been enough to easily crush the bones of the whales and other large animals it preyed upon.
Meanwhile, back in the present day, it wasn’t just Bland who got lucky with his find. Indeed, Megalodon teeth were discovered by many other residents of the island throughout October, and North Carolina as a whole is considered to be one of the best places to find them. Scientists speculate that high tides and rain caused by Hurricane Joaquin earlier that month may have brought them up from the Atlantic Ocean’s depths.
However, as evidenced by continued tooth findings in Europe, North America, Asia and even Australia, the Megalodon lived and hunted all over the world. Indeed, a similar discovery had been made only a few months prior in central Europe when a Croatian man found a black Megalodon tooth in a local river.
Megalodon teeth have also been discovered earlier in history, but they were, at the time, assumed to have mythical origins. In fact, some people thought that they were dragons’ tongues. Other theories, meanwhile, suggested that the objects were rocks from the Moon. It wasn’t until 1666 when a Danish scientist by the name of Nicolaus Steno examined the teeth of a great white shark that he realized the fossils must have belonged to an even bigger shark.
Steno was able to do this because, unlike the giant shark’s cartilage skeleton, the teeth can develop into fossils and are able to survive for millions of years. And because sharks are known to constantly shed and replace their teeth, this leaves plenty of evidence for paleontologists.
Today, scientists believe that the Megalodon preferred warm coastal waters due its inability to regulate its body temperature. Their current theory for the beasts’ extinction is that the beginning of an Ice Age caused large volumes of water to be locked up as ice, drying up the warm coastal areas they patrolled.
This is further supported by the fact that Megalodon teeth have been discovered on land as far as 100 miles from the nearest current ocean. This suggests that these Megalodon hunting grounds were covered by shallow seas that have since dried up or receded.
Moreover, although some people hold out hope that the giant predator still exists, scientists say the idea is nonsense. They remain adamant that the last Megalodon died out 2.6 million years ago while our distant ancestors Homo habilis roamed the Earth. And considering the fact that Jaws is already scary enough with its much smaller great white, that’s probably a good thing for a lot of people.