It was spring 2016, and Gary Williams, 48, and his wife Angela, 49, were taking a walk along one of their favorite stretches of beach in Lancashire, England. That beach is Middleton Sands, and it looks out onto the Irish Sea. It’s also not far from the village of Overton, where Gary, an engineer, and Angela, a nurse, live together.
Middleton Sands is a picturesque, sandy strip that’s popular with hikers and dog walkers, although the Williamses were walking on a less visited part of the beach. In any case, that April day Angela and Gary noticed something rather unpleasant. It was a noxious smell which Gary later described as being like rotting fish.
Their curiosity nevertheless piqued, the couple followed the unpleasant smell to find its source – and what they discovered was a pale lump not quite the size of a football. The lump certainly smelled bad, and it had a waxy texture. What’s more, the pair actually had an idea of what it might be.
You see, the Williamses 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 often called – are washed ashore to be found by beachcombers. So, Gary and Angela covered their find in a scarf and then took it with them.
Once they’d got it back to their house, Gary used his fisherman’s scales to weigh the lump. It was almost 3.5 pounds. This, therefore, made Gary and Angela even more excited about their find. Why? Because they knew that a man had found a lump of ambergris on the coast at Morecambe, not far from where they were.
That other lump had weighed a little more than twice the one that Angela and Gary had found. Moreover, it had been valued at a hefty $155,000 – which could mean that their own piece of ambergris might fetch a staggering $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a chunk of old so-called vomit.
“It smells too bad, though – it’s a very distinctive smell, like a cross between squid and farmyard manure,” Gary later told the Daily Mirror. “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.”
But what exactly is ambergris? Well, its alternative name, whale vomit, while not strictly accurate, does provide a clue. You see, 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 of whale, to boot.
That’s the sperm whale – a magnificent beast that’s found in oceans and seas around the world, including Britain’s coastal waters. Individuals 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. Indeed, as many as one million whales were slaughtered for the various products they yielded during the 19th and 20th centuries. But the population has, nonetheless, since been slowly recovering since hunting was outlawed in the 1980s.
Needless to say that back in the day hunting these whales could sometimes be a dangerous business. In 1820 a sperm whale with a claimed length of 85 feet rammed the Essex, a whaler from Nantucket, Massachusetts. The ship subsequently sank, too, leaving 20 crewmen 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. Only eight men survived the ordeal. And Herman Melville is said to have based his classic novel Moby Dick on this real-life incident.
Now although harvesting blubber was the main motive for hunting sperm whales, ambergris was also highly prized. It is incorporated in the manufacture of perfume, and its fragrance has been compared to that of musk. The ancient Egyptians used it as a kind of incense, while Europeans in the Middle Ages believed it had medicinal properties.
How, then, could the horribly smelly lump found by Gary and Angela Williams be something that’s used in the production of perfume? The answer is that it’s freshly created ambergris which has this unpleasant odor. Its attractive scent, meanwhile, becomes apparent as the substance gets older.
That still leaves one other key 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. You see, sperm whales love to eat giant squid, which have decidedly hard beaks that cannot be digested. The whales therefore vomit most of the beaks out – but not all of them.
Those beaks that then travel into the individual whale’s digestive system are subsequently covered in ambergris as a protection for the animal’s intestines and stomach. The ambergris is actually formed from liquid that comes out of the bile duct located in the whale’s innards. Now usually that ambergris will be discharged with feces, but sometimes it exits via the mouth. And that’s what has led to the idea of whale vomit.
Interestingly, ambergris is only created very slowly, over periods of years, and it’s also believed that not all sperm whales produce it. It may even be that the proportion of whales that do so is as low as 1 percent. As for where you’ll come across the stuff, well, it is most commonly found in the Atlantic Ocean, although most commercial gathering of the substance happens in the Caribbean, especially in the Bahamas.
The sperm whale itself, meanwhile, is an extraordinary animal. It can dive to an astonishing depth of around 7,400 feet – or not far off a mile and a half. Indeed, only the Cuvier’s beaked whale can dive deeper. 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. Each of the animals’ brains weighs five times more than that of a human.
So, using your own gray matter, if you’re taking a walk along the beach, it’s well worth keeping an eye out for ambergris – which is sometimes referred to as floating gold. That being said, remember that most lumpy things you’ll find on the beach and which smell of poop probably are just that…
What, meanwhile, became of Gary and Angela Williams? How did they spend their unexpected windfall? Well, with what might be called typically British restraint, Gary told the Daily Mirror, “If it 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.