Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ambergris Story

He sat at the bar listening to the idle chatter of two local bar flies. They were discussing something called ambergris and how finding it could make you wealthy. As he listened, his mind slowly focused on the subject. He wanted to be rich. Maybe this was his chance.

He was aware that Sunday was watching him as he got sucked into the bullshit little at a time. She moved toward him down the bar. Sunday owned Sunday’s Place, the dive he was in.

Sunday’s bar was in the town of Govenor’s Harbour on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. It was situated on the corner of the main island road and one of the few streets in town than ran east up the hill and over toward the Atlantic. The bar was the converted living room of a rotting, old antebellum-style town house from the island’s pineapple supplying days.

Sunday Simpson was a British expatriate living in the islands. She was single, in her sixties, and had run a bar long enough to know bullshit when she heard it. She was also a sweet old gal who took care of the range rats that worked at the USAF missile-tracking site about five miles north of town. The year was 1963 and I was one of those range rats.

“Sunday, what is ambergris?” I said.

Sunday smiled.

“Don’t pay any attention to those alky’s,” Sunday said. “I’ve seen ambergris in South Africa, and I’ve heard about a couple in Australia that found a blob of ambergris that was worth about £100,000 pounds. I’ve never heard of any found around here.”

“But, what is it?” I asked. I still had no idea of what ambergris was or how it could make you rich.

Sunday put her elbows on the bar. “Ambergris is something made in the body of a whale. His sperm or vomit or something like that. It’s very rare and is used to make perfume.”

“What does it look like and where would you find it?” I asked.

“Since it comes from a whale I guess you would find it along a beach. It’s a solid, waxy like substance that’s sort of a dull gray or blackish color. Off Eleuthera I would guess you would look on the Atlantic side. There’s no whales on the Caribbean side.” She said.

Sunday went off to wait on another customer and I gave thought to returning to the base as I had to work the next day. My red Volvo was parked in the lot behind Sunday’s so I made it up the island.

As I mentioned the Air Force base was about five miles north of Govenor’s Harbour. Eleuthera is one of the Bahamian out-islands with verdant rolling hills covered with dense mangrove forests. It has one road that runs the length of the island, which is about 110 miles long end to end. The island is only about a half mile wide.

The main island road is a sandy, one-lane strip that is, at most, one and a half cars wide. Two cars cannot pass without one of them getting off into the mangrove bushes that hug both sides of the road.

As one approaches the base there is a small road that goes off to the right and up a hill to two military bases, a Navy base and the Air Force Tracking Station.

The Navy base is a very secure underwater spy facility and I don’t know much about it. I do know that the Atlantic continental shelf is just east of Eleuthera and that the Navy hangs hydrophones over the edge to listen for Russian ships and submarines.

In 1963, the Air Force Tracking Station was part of the Atlantic Missile Range, later renamed the Eastern Test Range. All kinds of missile tracking instrumentation were stretched out from Patrick Air Force Base down past Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. The Atlantic Missile Range was operated and maintained for the Air Force by Pan American World Services and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1954 through most of the 1980s.

Eleuthera was home to the MISTRAM (Missile Trajectory Measurement) system, an extremely accurate tracking system used by the Air Force and NASA to provide guidance data for Minuteman, Polaris and other projects that required stringent ballistic missile tests. I worked for RCA, the technical contractor for MISTRAM, and I was to make Eleuthera my home for the next few years.

I made the right turn, drove up the hill, went through the security gate, and turned in to the employee barracks. The barracks was the first building on the base, sat off to the left at a slight angle, and overlooked the deep purple Atlantic.

On Saturday morning I had breakfast and decided to go ambergris hunting. I wore tennis shoes, shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t carry any food or water because I thought I could walk the five miles in a couple of hours. After all, I was 24 years old, and king of the world!

To set the scene for you, Eleuthera’s east coast was a narrow strip of beach between a mangrove forest and the Atlantic ocean. Once you started down the beach there was no way out except back the way you had come or straight ahead. The mangroves were so thick you couldn’t cut inland back to the main road.

I walked a mile or so and came to my first handicap – one of Eleuthera’s many hills. The hill was covered in vegetation to the point where it ran into the sea and became an elevated reef of sharp rocks several hundred yards long. The surface was composed of a ringing crust of sharp rocks resulting from exposure to the sea and weather. Just under the reef’s surface, where the rocks disappeared beneith the waves, was a an active reef of fire coral.

There are good reasons to avoid fire coral. They can give you a nasty sting. Fire coral looks like tree limbs after the leaves have fallen off. If you look closely at fire coral you can see fine stuff coming out of the limbs. That’s what stings.

I had done a lot of snorkling off similar terrain on both sides of the island and I wasn’t real anxious to get mixed up with the fire coral. I also had a deep fear of sharks and swimming around the hill projection didn’t appeal to me either. That left going through the mangrove thicket or crawling over the rocks. I tried the mangrove underbrush but couldn’t make it very far. That left climbing over the spiky rocks. After a lot of cuts and bruises I got past the first hill. Even though I didn’t know how many more hills were in front of me, I went on.

As anyone who has tried it knows, walking on sand requires greater effort than walking on firm ground. As I walked down the slanted beach my feet slipped as they moved in the sand, resulting in additional work on my muscles and tendons. It didn’t matter if I walked fast or slow. In fact, my feet slipped further in the sand at slower paces! However, after I was a couple of miles down the beach, I felt I was committed!

Now, I did find some ambergris, or what I thought was ambergris. I found several balls of white, wax-like subtance, and I collected a few to show Sunday. I found some other strange stuff as well.

Half buried in the sand, I found the tail wing of an Air Force jet aircraft. I didn’t have enough of the airplane to tell the type, but I figured it must have gone down somewhere out in the ocean and washed up on the beach. I probably should have told somebody about it, but I didn’t want to have to come back to the area again. I just went on and forgot about it.

I also found several Portuguese glass fishing floats that had washed up on the beach. These glass balls are blown from melted wind bottles and used by Portuguese fishermen to hold up their nets. They come loose and follow the Gulf Stream around the equator to Eleuthera. I didn’t have any way to carry them, so I buried them above the tide line where I could find them another day.

I probably crossed three more hills. The further along I got the more I wished I had brought along some water and worn a broad-brimmed hat. My mouth was dry and I was getting hot and thirsty. I could feel heat exhaustion setting in. I was getting confused and couldn’t get a sense of how much further I had to go. Soon, fortunately, up ahead I could see a structure and I knew I was getting close to Govenor’s Harbour.

I could also see coconut trees, sea grape trees, pink bougainvillea vines and the buildings of the French Leave resort nestled on the beach east of Govenor’s Harbour. As I got closer I could see the sandy road that led back over the hill to the town of Govenor’s Harbour and Sunday’s bar.

I was about at the end of my rope as I climbed the hill and made my way to Sunday’s. When I entered the bar my mouth was so dry I couldn’t talk. I could only hope Sunday would recognize my condition and set me up a beer. I quickly drank three St. Pauli Girls before I could explain myself to Sunday.

I reached into my shorts and removed the white, waxy globs that I hoped were ambergris. Sunday looked at them and said, “Nope. These are nothing more than wax globules that are dumped by oil tankers when they pump their bilges. They’re not ambergris.”

I was much embarrassed and a little shocked. However, this was not the last problem I faced that day. I still had to figure out how I was going to get back to the base!

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