Jun 20, 2015

Lamalera: Traditional whaling village

Elizabeth and I made our way to the legendary whaling villages of Lamalera in the south of the island of Lembata. The whalers of Lamalera eke out their existence in various states of contention with conservation groups and the Indonesian government. They have been exempted from international prohibitions due to the small number of their subsistence catch (about 10-15 whales per year). The government sometimes sends in emissaries to try to negotiate and end to their fishing practices. In any case, the 2,000 or so people who live here are continuing to hunt in the same way they have for hundreds, if not thousands of years--in tiny boats with bamboo harpoons,and enormous cahones. In true Gonzo spirit I sought to accompany one of the whaling boats on a hunt. Vegetarians, you should probably just stop reading this now.

All aboard the mighty ship Monas!

Gateway to Lamalera

Alfons Mnua was the unmistakable leader of our vessel, the Monas. Alfons stood on two dark-skinned and stick-thin legs, improbably resolute against the constant and unpredictable reeling of the boat. He had the indeterminate age of experience, such that you didn’t know how old he might be, but surely he had been doing exactly this for 40 years. What few sentences were spoken that day, he spoke the majority of them, dominating the quiet times of waiting and watching with an austere monologue of the Lamalera language, which was always earnestly heeded. He would smoke his corn-husk cigarette voluminously, and when he reached for his jar of tobacco it was a sign that the chase had ended, for now. The others of our boat all smoked them as well. They were all imitators, unable to produce the billowing clouds of tobacco smoke which emanated from Alfons.

Alfons on the right, harpooner up front

The man who came closest was our harpooner, whose job it was to bodily fling himself from the prow of our speeding boat as a human extension of the harpoon itself until he had driven the hook deep into the prey as he clung to its back. The spikey-toothed sperm whales that he would launch himself onto grow up to 20 meters (65 feet) long compared to our wooden boat of about 5 meters.

Clearly these were men that Hemingway would be proud to write about

All together our crew were nine including myself. We gathered at 6:30 on the shore and squatted, smoking until the whole crew had arrived. We dragged the Monas out of its grass hut and down into the water and by 7:00 we were underway.

Last-minute adjustments

Ready to haul the boat

It was not long before excited shouts rang out. The crew had spotted our first quarry, a two-meter manta ray. The motor man sped up to give chase and the harpooner raised his weapon, pointing it’s tip toward the disturbance on the water’s surface ahead, barely visible to my untrained eyes.

At this point I’d like to point out that catches tend to be few and far between. The village had not caught a whale since April, but considered it to be a very good year since on most days at least one boat had caught something--a manta or whale shark. That means the vast majority of boats that head out into the open water for eight hours return with nothing at all. The chase will begin, but often the quarry will dive down and disappear before we can get close enough. The boat will circle, watching intently for any sign of it coming back to the surface. Or else the harpooner will let fly (with himself), but fail to reach the prey.

Back to our first sighting of the day: We drew close enough and the harpooner struck! He was nearly keel-hauled in the process, but clambered back aboard so quickly he could not be missed. The manta took off to starboard, trashing and flapping its great wings above the surface. We gave chase and more harpoons went in. The manta was reeled in to the side of the boat and administered a coup de grâce by Alfons with all the seriousness of a man securing his next meal and his livelihood. The manta was hauled on board within an hour of our leaving the beach.

Alfons led a prayer for the manta, a gift from god that they were harvesting for their village; we crossed ourselves in the Catholic tradition and bid the manta “selamat pagi”, a good morning for its spirit’s departure. Then the tobacco and corn husks came out as the crew celebrated our good fortune.

After our catch we headed further the the east. I was astonished to see a series of massive water spouts on the horizon, one after another. All ten of the village’s boats were headed for a pod of very large whales. Of whales, the hunters seek only toothed whales, chiefly sperm whales and orca. They do not hunt blue whales, which are considered holy, or other baleen whales. We did not get close enough to the pod to discover if they were sperm or another kind of whale before they disappeared into the depths. Dolphins (lumba-lumba) are also not hunted and as we sat for a while waiting, I watched a huge pod frolicking and leaping clear out of the water in the distance. For some time we picked up in hot pursuit of an orca, but we never got close enough for a try and the rest of the day passed without another catch.

Hours passed as we sat, patiently scanning the sea for what may lie beneath the surface

We did cross paths with another fisherman who was hauling in a net of the more conventional sort and tossed a few buckets of flying fish into our boat. I was surprised when two members of the crew, Andreas and Alan, lept upon the catch and started to devour the eyes straight out of the raw fish!

Other fisherman used conventional nets for smaller fish

Those eyes didn't just fall out into the soup

After some pause I did try one but found the texture not entirely agreeable. The hard lens of the eye just didn’t seem like something I ought to chew, but Andreas must have eaten about 100 fish eyes that day. A couple of times we came across small fish floating in the water that must have come out of someone’s net and he dove straight off the boat to recover them!

Around 14:00 we struck out for homeskirting the rocky coast around the volcanic peak.

Wrapping up the harpoons after eight hours of sun and sea

When we got back to shore we found that out of the 10 boats that went out that day, one other boat had caught a manta ray and one had caught a small whale shark.

The catch is divided up; for a large catch everyone in the village will get a share, nothing is wasted

I was rewarded for my valiant bailing efforts throughout the day with a big chunk of manta meat and some organ bits. I don't know what they were, but Mama Maria, the patroness of our homestay cooked it all up into an extremely delicious and delicately textured supper.

My share of the catch

Fish face


  1. Nick, that is one of the best blog posts I have every read. If you had any part in it, thank you for not insisting my daughter go along!

    1. Being on a tiny boat around large whales is literally the stuff off my nightmares. I stayed on the beach being taught to count in Indonesian by all the small children around me.

    2. Thanks Tim! Here are two more videos I couldn't upload in time fo the post.
      The boat ride home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2dlmXnJzJ4
      Bringing the catch on shore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhRQMvnqfrU


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