It was a hot afternoon and Ibrahim Riyaz was standing on the beach of his island Kudarikikilu in Baa Atoll, trying to get some cooling breeze, when he noticed something white floating in the sea.
Curious as to what it was, he nevertheless turned his attention on his son who was on talking on the phone with his aunt. When his son left, he decided to go a bit closer to the sea, and noticed the object was now floating less than six foot from him.
“At first I thought it was a puffer fish,” says Riyaz.
When he realized it was floating further away instead of coming towards him, he decided to wade in. “At the back of my mind, I did think it might be an ambergris.”
The object was white and weighed around 2.5 kilograms, with a strong, earthy smell. He placed it near a palm tree, and went home for a shower. On his return he took the ambergris and went to a relative’s house nearby.
“Having never seen ambergris I wasn’t sure what it was,” he says. When the old relative he showed to said it was ambergris, “my joy knew no bounds.”
Riyaz dropped his son at school and came back, and saw the old man had broken a little bit off and was burning it on the fire: “It smelled like perfume, like good aftershave.”
His father returned from fishing, also burned a piece and said it was ambergris. This was confirmed by the islands old medicine man the next day.
Guarding an ambergris
Now the substance had been identified as ambergris, the issue of security cropped up. Ambergris is used to make perfumes, in medicine, and is also known as an aphrodisiac, consequentially it enjoys a high value on the international market.
Kudarikilu, a small island of around 540 inhabitants, had been the location an ambergris find thirty years ago also.
“Alas the story didn’t end well for that person,” says Riyaz, explaining that a fisherman by the name of Mohamedbe had been out fishing near an uninhabited island when an object floated near the boat, bobbing up and down.
Not sure what it was, he nevertheless picked it up and kept it in the dhoni.
Upon arrival, the first person Mohamedbe met was Riyaz’s grandfather. He called his crewmates to bring the object, showed it to the grandfather who identified it as ambergris.
Ecstatic, Mohamedbe got ready to leave to Male the next night to sell it. Come the time for departure, Mohamedbe finds the batheli (small boat) had been robbed of its rudder.
“Even then Mohamedbe didn’t realize something was wrong,” says Riyaz.
Next day Mohamedbe gets a new rudder, and prepares to leave the following day. “
“That night itself someone broke into his home and stole the ambergris.”
Distraught, Mohamedbe sought the help of the island office, who said a search could be undertaken but not of any homes.
“The talk was that the island office people were in on the stealing, because what was the point if the homes can’t be searched?”
The rudder was returned the following day.
The affair remained a mystery until a couple of months later, when a couple divorced and the ex-wife, in a fit of anger, yelled at her former husband and called him an “ambergris thief.”
According to the story, the ambergris was hidden on a fish net hung in a room in the couple’s home. Mohamedbe took the matter to court; the man in question was apprehended and confessed.
“However on the day he appeared in court, he retracted saying he was scared that’s why he lied,” Riyaz says.
Islanders concluded his co-conspirators had threatened him to shutting up.
The case was closed, with the man banished to another island for lying, and the islanders concluded that ambergris would never again found around the island of Kudarikilu.
Riyaz was determined the story would not repeat itself. In the eight days since he found it, thieves have broken into his house twice, he says. “One night I woke up to a sound and found a man dashing out.”
Island councilor Hassan Siraj said the island office would provide security, if requested: “Right now they are trying to market it abroad. Thirty years before ambergris was stolen [on the island], so we will help in any way if Riyaz requests.”
Riyaz says his find is well hidden.
“Siraj did offer to bring police help, but I will only ask for that if it takes long time to sell,” he says.
Asked if he is always anxious about it being stolen, he says “of course that fear is there, but it’s safe for the time being.”
He had an offer to sell the chunk to a local businessmen for four lacks (US$40,000). However a fellow islander, who works in Male, has been entrusted the task of finding buyers for it from abroad.
“Friends say I can sell it for a very good price as this is white ambergris and it’s more expensive.”
The first thing he will do with the money he receives will be to “send my parents to hajj”, Riyaz explains.
He plans to continue fishing as it’s his passion. “I might also start a small business with the nearby resorts.”
Riyaz plans to continue living on his small island, albeit richer than before.