Lamalera Village, Eastern Indonesia is one of the few remaining whale-hunting communities in the world. But why is this traditional method of survival still a custom here? Should we, as tourists, visit?
Lamalera village is the true meaning of ‘eye-opening’. It is now the dry season in Indonesia and the sweltering heat is already in full swing at 7am. Our transport is a small powerboat, as we make our way across the Savu sea to the shoreline of Lembata Island, a part of the Lesser Sunda Islands. The village sits on the edge of a volcano and its black-sand beach stretches across a small bay. At the top of the sand, small wooden huts line the beach.
Almost immediately the smell of rotting meat fills my senses. It’s a distant tingle in my nose at first, a faint scent in the air. As I walk up towards the village entrance – a short concrete path in between two shacks – my nostrils fill, the smell growing and whirring inside me until I can feel it in my brain.
As we near the shacks, we see scores of pieces of whale meat hanging out to dry. The thick, humid air is now heavy with the stench. It is from here that the hunting boats are launched and it’s here the catch is dragged back to. I stop to gather what I’m seeing and survey the beach. Men sit outside their open shacks, watching us watching them. This is presumably the usual on-guard position when surveying for whales.
On the sand, children run and giggle and play. Their faces full of smiles, happiness and freedom. No one bats an eyelid at the Sperm whale skeleton or the massive jaw bone lying in the sand. Or the remaining flesh rotting in the morning sun.
Why does Lamalera still whale-hunt?
During the early 19th Century, whale blubber was commonly used for oil by westerners. Around this time, many species of whale were hunted to near-extinction. In 1986, commercial whaling was banned for the same reason and clear guidelines set on killing whales. Over 30 years on, Lamalerans are considered to be ‘aboriginal subsistance hunters’ by the International Whaling Commission. Basically this tiny village of 2,000 depend on whale meat to survive.
The Savu sea is their office and a major migratory route for Sperm and Blue whales, as well as Orca (Killer whales). Manta rays are often spotted in these waters too. One Sperm whale (the most likely whale to be spotted here) can produce enough meat to feed the whole community. Occasionally Orca, Humpbacks and Blue whales are killed too – although no one explains why. Tradition says only Sperm whales are to be hunted in these waters.
What happens during a hunt?
The whale hunt is carried out by the village men. The training process begins as young as eight years old. The tradition has not changed from the days of their ancestors.
The whale is usually spotted from land and called out, to which the men immediately launch their boats into to the water. The race is on for each boat to reach the whale first. Sometimes six, seven or eight boats could be vying for poll position. As the crew row with all their might, there is one man who stands at the front of the boat directing them. He is the head harpooner known as ‘lama fa’.
Harpoons and ropes are ready and waiting to be used as the boats hurtle towards their prey. It’s agreed the crew of the first boat to harpoon the whale will get the best part of the animal.
As they approach the mammal, the head harpooner takes his role and using all his bodyweight, launches himself into the water. The bamboo harpoon he uses is connected to the boat using ropes and has an iron tip strong enough to pierce whale skin. If he successfully manages this, the whale will be attached to the boat.
The dangers of whale hunting
Believe it or not, this isn’t an easy game for the whale-hunters. Once attached to the boat, the whale is likely to try to swim for its life – meaning the boat is under its complete control. The head harpooner also has to get himself back into the boat without being hit by the whale. Then, it’s just a matter of time. A matter of time how long the boat is dragged around for and how far out to see the hunters are taken.
Finally, when the whale becomes too tired to continue, one of the crew jumps in and unleashes the final blow – the severing of the spinal cord. From here, the animal is towed back to the beach.
Whale meat and memorabilia
Every part of the whale is made of use of here. Each slice carefully hacked off the body and hung out to dry for days in the sunshine. Round pieces, thin pieces, brown pieces, red pieces – there is more whale meat hanging across the entrances to these tiny beach shacks than you’ll find at a large Sainsbury’s Deli counter. At one shack, a long thing piece of meat hangs from the roof. It’s taller than I am by far and isn’t quite the same as any other piece I’ve seen so far. I question the owner as to where it comes from. ‘Whale penis,’ he laughs.
When tourists visit, which they occasionally do, the villagers put on a market in the main village square. Here, Sperm whale bones and teeth are sold as souvenirs alongside traditional ikats (Eastern Indonesian weaved and dyed textiles).
As the stall-holders, mainly women and children, call us to look at their controversial goods, I wonder how aware they are of the controversy surrounding their way of life. I politely decline the whale memorabilia and focus on the beautiful ikats.
Should the tourism industry be supporting this?
This is a hard one to answer. It is tourism, and therefore awareness, that has brought Lamalera’s way of life into the mainstream media. In 2015, the BBC produced a documentary where Journalist Will Millard went out with one lama fa to experience the whole process. In 2017, the New York Times wrote a piece on how the traditions of this remote East Indonesian village were slowly dying out. Since then, this small village has appeared on numerous websites – including TripAdvisor. It is this publicity that has gone on to bring more tourism, and therefore income, to a previously struggling village.
Naturally, with international recognition, Lamalerans are under huge scrutiny. It was their remoteness and removal from civilisation that allowed for subsistence hunting. Until recently, there was no road to bring in or export produce. Having enough fresh food for a growing community was rare. It was a struggle.
However, a road has now been built and with the influx of visitors, times are changing. The fact is, an age old tradition may be altered here under such public scrutiny, but in the case of saving lives, is there wrong in that? The jury is still out on that one.
It is the hope of the international community that soon there will be no need for Lamalerans to continue this tradition, but that doesn’t mean they should be ashamed of their past. The people here can still share their stories and tales of their whale-hunting days. It is, after all, a part of their history. But for the sake of nature, things may have to move on.
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