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The whale hunters of Indonesia

Photo: Carlos Ortí

“In May of 1994 we lived through the worst situation that I can remember.  36 men in several boats were dragged by a whale for four days.  We had no food, so we had to eat our own clothes. We were rescued by a merchant ship near Timor.”

Lambertus Dion is a pledangs pilot from Lamalera, a small village on the Indonesian island of Lembata, located 2,500 km away from Jakarta. The people of Lembata live on an unusual diet based on whale meat.  Far from the high technology of the best Japanese and Norwegian whaleboats, the fishermen of Lamalera keep a tradition alive that would startle even Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick”: a man, a harpoon and the prey.  Fighting an animal that can grow up to 30 meters in length, the fisherman carry out a battle seen in only two other places on earth—in Central America and in the Eskimo villages of the North Pole.

Around 2,000 people in this village live off the sea. From May to October, the east wind drives the whales from the cold Australian winter to take refuge in the warm waters of the 13,000 Indonesian islands.

Photo: Carlos Ortí

The pledangs, small wooden boats measuring about 10 meters in length, go into the ocean with a crew of eleven.  From six o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the evening, the fishermen hunt for anything edible.   Dolphins, mantas, whale-sharks, killer whales, and the huge sperm whales are potential prey for the fisherman and their fragile harpoons made of bamboo and hooks fashioned from recycled car parts.  The hunt is carried out with an audacity bordering on recklessness tempered by a healthy dose of good luck.  Seven out of ten trips the men return home empty-handed.

The children of the Lamalera learn early on to imitate the catlike posture of the fisherman as they jump between rocks holding an imaginary harpoon made from bamboo shoots.  They will need this training when, as adults, they hunt prey from the pledang.  Harpoon and harpooner jump from the boat together and land on the animal’s back. They thrust the harpoon into the animal’s flesh and jump back into the boat, which becomes an anchor that the whale must drag until it dies of exhaustion.  The largest whales can fight for half an hour before finally stopping. The harpooner’s jump must be very precise. The smallest mistake or miscalculation, like a rope wrapped around the feet, can have disastrous consequences.

If they see a whale-shark or bigger prey, the whole crew recites an Ave Maria (all the inhabitants of Lamalera are Christians), take down the flag and bless the small platform from which the harpooner and the rest of the crew must jump.

Photo: Carlos Ortí

Almost every day fourteen boats leave Lamalera for the hunt. One crewmember in each pledang must bail water from the boat to keep the vessel from sinking. The pledangs are constructed without nails and gaps in the wood are closed with vegetable filler. The boats are always damp and provide very little protection from the sea. A harpooner, a helmsman, a pilot and eight oarsmen comprise the crew of each pledang.

In 1982 the FAO tried to help the Lamalera. The United Nations provided the village with the boat FAO 82 (equipped with an automatic harpoon). They tried to modernize an ancient tradition, but the experiment was a total failure.

A veteran Norwegian fisherman was sent to the island to teach the Lamalera people the latest in whale hunting techniques.  It took almost a year to get the ship from Europe to Lembata Island.  Once in the village, the Norwegian had to travel frequently to Japan and Java to stock up on fuel and spare parts unavailable on the island. As a result, the man was hardly on the island more than a few months before abandoning his post. To make matters worse, the Lamalera people did not appreciate the international intrusion and resisted the attempt at updating their traditional hunting techniques. In the end, the FAO decided to scrap the project.

Photo: Carlos Ortí

The village priest blesses the boats at the beginning of every fishing season. The crew finds comfort in the tobacco that they smoke constantly onboard and in a few small bottles of water. These are the only supplies in the fishing grounds, some of which are more than 2,000 meters in depth. The men don’t fish on Sundays—church days.

Lamalera doesn’t live on whale meat alone. The villagers’ diet is supplemented by food obtained in Wulandoni village, six kilometres away. Every Saturday, people from all over the island travel to the small market in Wulandoni to find the items they need so that their meals can be made up not only of fish and other seafood.  Money is not used in the market, instead, like in the past people barter for fruit, salt or tobacco. The custom has created a natural pricing system whereby one kilogram of salt is worth six ears of corn; a piece of manta meat buys twelve bananas, and to take home one kilogram of cotton one must trade twenty flying fish.

Photo: Carlos Ortí

After a catch, most of the sperm whale meat lies exposed to the sun for days. The most desired cut comes from the side of the thorax, next to the fin, where the fat is most thick.

The pledangs remain as fragile as always and modernization won’t change the Lamalera’s proud tradition—the pride of the last whale hunters.

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