We waited in apprehensive silence, the waves quietly splashing around the hull of the wooden boat — as idyllic as a painted ship upon a painted ocean. The young boat crew puffed on long, hand-rolled cigarettes, mixing the faint sea breeze with the harsh, brazen smell of their tobacco, while they pulled in their fishing lines from the depths of the sea below and sharpened their harpoons with menacing determination.
The sun beat down relentlessly over the boat and our crew as I gazed back on the small village of Lamalera (which we had set out from hours before), a line of ramshackle huts enclosed on both sides by a rocky outcrop of cliffs. It reminded me of an age long past, this village, were fishermen risk their lives daily in rickety boats armed only with wooden harpoons, courage and the desire to provide for their families to hunt the sea’s deadliest creatures: whales, sharks, manta rays, in the far reaches of the Indonesian archipelagos on the remote island of Lembata in East Nusa Tenggara.
The crew began hauling on the lines quicker while they became taut and heavy in their hands, but the silence was abruptly broken by yells of excitement when a dark shadow flitted under the boat. They ran to their positions, two of them holding tight onto the lines while the captain, silent and resolute, took his place at the bow of the boat and was handed a 10ft wooden harpoon.
The shadow passed the boat again, this time closer to the surface; the captain braced himself, then leapt, throwing his whole weight behind the harpoon and plunging it into the huge fish with a sickening thud.
He scrambled back on board as a second crew member thrust another harpoon into the fish and the water around us turned red. It was a Moon Fish, of ferocious size and shape, which threatened to escape the hunters and refused to surrender lightly.
A third crew member pulled out a knife, a serrated saw-like weapon. He leapt over the side, adeptly avoiding the thrashing fins that were churning up the surface of the water, before attacking the fish and struggling with it in the frothing red water. Minutes later, a mangled fin was thrown into the boat and the fisherman climbed back on board, exhausted, yet triumphant.
But their work was far from over, as another harpoon was thrust home and the Moon Fish was dragged to the side of the boat through sheer determination and brute strength. The men began sawing off the remaining fin, pulling the fish up onto the boat and almost capsizing us as we rushed to the port side to even out the monstrous weight that was threatening to spill us into the ocean.
With the catch precariously balanced on the boat, the men cut the lines and pulled the huge hook from its mouth before tying it down. Then, they began pulling in the remainder of their lines as the Moon Fish continued to gasp for breath and the sun began to set in a tropical, disturbingly fitting haze of red and orange.
I’d arrived on the island the previous day, intrigued by the prospect of experiencing firsthand a life unusual in modern times. Naive thoughts of living my own Moby Dick adventure ran wild through my imagination on the weeklong odyssey from Bali. But they were met by the brutal reality of the unforgiving existence of a small community of people, clinging to their centuries old way of life in the face of depleting sea stocks, illegal trawling and ill-informed anti-whaling activists branding the village’s sustainable whaling as part of the wider world problem of declining marine mammal populations.
One time, while I was strolling along the beachfront, a grey, scarred old man pointed to the bones that ornamented his small hut, saying, “Baleo! Baleo!” (“Whale! Whale!”), a grizzly tribute to the hunt and the Lamaleran way of life. The fishermen only pursue sperm whales, but very few are even spotted these days, let alone killed. The successful hunt of a whale involves the entire fleet of boats from the village and takes hours to accomplish, as man battles whale in a race across the sea. The fishermen fling themselves at the whale, sinking harpoons and attacking it wherever possible, slowly sapping its strength in a brutal duel. The whale can drag down a boat and the whole crew when it tries to dive and escape, while the huge tail can knock a man unconscious, leave him for dead in the water or crush a boat in half. This is no one-sided slaughter and is far removed from the industrialised capacity of modern whaling, where they indiscriminately harvest huge numbers of whales in a single trip.
At my host family, the head of the house, in a mixture of broken English and Indonesian, asked me if I was a journalist or activist. I told him I was a student and he took this as a cue to tell me of his dislike for the “f***ing Japanese”. He told me of the frequent visits by activists to the village, telling him to stop hunting whales and dolphins, to which he responds by telling them to talk to the Japanese first to stop them from taking all the fish so he can have a chance to feed his family.
Island life revolves around the use of an age-old barter system. The village shares out the spoils of a hunt and in turn trade part of their share with other villages, obtaining valuable commodities and food otherwise unobtainable to them. The decline in marine stocks, however, is threatening to erode this traditional system and leave the island in the desperate grasp of poverty, forcing the inhabitants away from their ancestral homes and livelihoods.
The next trip I was to take with the hunters would highlight the precipitous existence eked out in the waters around the island by the Lamalerans. We set off from the beach in the early afternoon, as the men from a morning hunt sliced up the body of a manta ray in the shallows and the meat from a shark was hung up to dry in the midday sun. Hours passed, the silence disturbed only by the faint humming of the outboard motor while the crew scanned the horizons for any sign of a potential catch. Then, without a word, the captain pointed into the distance, taking his place at the front of the boat as the crew began readying their harpoons. A few minutes later, I could see splashes ahead of us and blurry movement in the waters. We closed in and I began to see dolphins breaking the surface, occasionally leaping out of the water.
The captain was passed a harpoon and the pilot began manoeuvring the boat wildly, trying to keep pace with the dolphins, to herd them and get alongside, while they dived under the boat. The Captain, when he thought he could get a hit, hurled the harpoon into the water. He missed, and pulled the harpoon back aboard, screaming instructions at his crew before trying again to score a hit. But no dolphins were to be caught this day. A few minutes later, the window of opportunity closed as the pod of dolphins dived again and did not return.
The crew were silent and discontent when we headed back to the village with no catch to show for the day’s hunting and the haunting knowledge that unsuccessful trips were becoming too regular an occurrence for the whole village.
The Lamalerans were also featured in an episode of the recent BBC documentary series Human Planet.