Magazine article Geographical

When the Boat Comes In

Magazine article Geographical

When the Boat Comes In

Article excerpt

Lamalera in Indonesia is the last place on earth where traditional whale hunts take place. Stuart Isett visits these islanders and witnesses a rare kill

UNDER A SCORCHING SUN the wooden outrigger Teti Heri braves the heaving swells of the Sawu Sea. In an eerie silence the crew members scan the horizon hoping for a glimpse of their prey. So far this season luck has been against them and nearly every day for two months the men from the village of Lamalera, on the tiny island of Lembata in Indonesia, have taken to the seas praying for the ultimate catch -- the ikan paus, or sperm whale. For the small community of Lamalera still hunt whales, not with engine boats and explosive harpoons but with 12-metre long wooden boats and bamboo-shafted spears that have changed little in 200 years.

Suddenly a shout breaks the silence, "Baleo, baleo". These are the words the hunters have been longing to hear. Translated literally as `come with the rope', the crew on one of the other ten boats out sailing today, has at last spotted a sperm whale. In a burst of frenetic activity, the men grab for their oars and the sacred leo -- a tightly wound rope, woven from palm fronds, which attaches to the harpoon used to pierce the sperm whale's back.

Three boats several kilometres away are already dropping their sails, as the eight- to ten-strong crews take up their oars to row furiously to their ultimate prize. The Teti Heri is too far away to join the hunt, but the crew of the Menula Belolo, are catching up with the 12-metre whale and as they approach, the lamafar, or harpooner, balances himself carefully on the bow of the boat as other crew members row furiously to keep alongside it.

When the Menula Belolo's lamafar, Christoforus Pelea, leaps from the boat his harpoon hits the mark. Blood spurts from the whale but being both large and male, this particular sperm whale won't go quietly. He quickly turns on the Menula Belolo, capsizing her with a single butt of his heat. As the lamafar of the Fisherman Boy lunges at the whale, his boat is lifted several feet by the whale's tail. A third harpoon drives into the whale from the Holo Sapang. The whale quickly loses strength as blood pours from its wounds. Whalers leap into the crimson water with knives to finish off the beast, cutting deep into its lungs, quickly drowning it in blood and sea water. Within minutes of the initial strike, the whale is dead, its 15-tonne body floating listlessly on the water.

Hope and prey

Lamalera is the last place on earth where traditional whale hunts exist. The men of the village take to the sea in 12-metre-long boats, made entirely from wood, and built in accordance with ancient statutes of the village. Although Indonesia is not a signatory to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Commission has exempted the hunts on the grounds that they are strictly for subsistence and do not threaten sperm whale populations. The villagers also hunt other marine life, with pilot whales, manta rays and dolphins being the most common catch. Village leaders remember when the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) came to observe their hunts for four months and then announced to the village that it saw no problems with the whaling, serving as it did the needs of a small community. The villagers were thankful for the blessing but had no idea who WWF was.

Killing a whale takes years of experience. The lamafar's job is inherited, passed from father to son. The role warrants a unique position in Lamaleran society on account of its danger and the precise skill required. The lamafar must strike a main artery running down the whale's back; a little bit off the mark and instead of a fatally wounded whale, the villagers will have an angry and powerful beast on their hands. Boats have been dragged as far as East Timor by wounded whales and, over the years, whalers have lost life and limb to these real life Moby Dicks.

"You can call me Petro," the lamafar answers when I ask his name. …

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