Dylan Thuras is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Dylan is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer.
If you've never seen the BBC show Connections with James Burke, you are missing out. Aired in 1979 the show attempted to connect various elements of history of science into a narrative web. I adore the show and in an homage I am going to try and do a few small Atlas version of connections, taking two disparate places, and finding an unexpected connection that links them together. Here goes!
1. Colossal Squid on display at the New Zealand Te Papa Museum
The San Aspiring, a New Zealand fishing boat, caught the colossal squid in February 2007. "The crew were fishing with longlines - single lines with many baited hooks - for a large species of fish, the Antarctic toothfish. But on one line they caught more than they bargained for! There was a toothfish on the line, but eating the fish was a colossal squid - nearly 500 kg of it." The Colossal squid, featuring one of the largest beaks in nature, is now on display at the Te Papa Museum in New Zealand.
In Old Havana stands the perfume museum, a collection of bottles, ingredients, and historical artifacts all related to perfume. The museum has a collection of French perfumes, including Chanel No. 5, as well as great Cuban perfumers Gravi, Sebatés and Crusellas. Most of the Cuban perfumes on display predate 1960, with the exception of one large collection. Suchel Fragrencia is the state perfume and soap maker, and the official state perfume produced in the country. The museum has their complete collection.
The Connection: Whale excrement
Squid, be they giant or colossal, make up between 50 and 70% percent of a sperm whale's diet. Unfortunately for the whale those sharp, pointy squid beaks can irritate their stomaches. It seems that some whales develop a rather curious response. Their intestines coat the beaks in a fatty goo and expel the resulting substance. (Recent consensus is that it generally goes out the back, unless too large and then it is vomited up.)
Known as Ambergris and used in Chanel No. 5 and other famous perfumes the whale excrement was, and still is, one of the most valued ingredients in scent making. Though it stinks terribly when first expelled "over time, the odour becomes softer and more perfumistic." Ambergris costs upwards of 4000 dollars a pound and is still used today in high end perfumes.
So it is that the smell of the Chanel No. 5 found at the Cuban Perfume Museum is, in part at least, the smell of "the inglorious bowels of a sick whale" caused by the beaks of colossal squid, like the one on display at the New Zealand Te Papa Museum.