I never expected to find myself on a whale hunt in a remote corner of Indonesia known as Lamalera. But there I sat as chaos swirled around me and men scrambled to save our lives.
I watched in horror as water poured over the sides of our precariously leaning boat. Meanwhile, the giant, bamboo sail whipped and cracked overhead.
Men were shouting orders and bailing bloody water out as quickly as they could with small buckets. Without being told, I jumped from my seat and moved to sit on the opposite edge of the boat, hoping to balance the weight before we capsized. It was all I could do to hold on as the sea pitched and rolled, having its way with our little boat.
The swells were 10 feet tall, many bigger.
The shoreline was just a faint line in the hazy distance, and considering that there was absolutely no safety equipment on board our little hunting canoe, we were going to have one hell of a swim in a rough sea if we finished capsizing.
I’m quite sure there would be no survivors. After working things out in my adrenaline-rocked brain, I knew that my only hope would be to grab something wooden that was floating and start to pray. I made a mental note as to what was tied down and what ropes I could cut if I had to do so. As on many times before, I wondered how in the world I get myself into these situations, and by the end of my short prayer to a grey, cloudy sky, our boat was starting to right itself again.
Yesterday I packed a few things, left the rest with my new family in Adonara, and came to Lamalera — a tiny, remote village on the island of Lembata in Flores, Indonesia. After two short boat rides and one very unpleasant six-hour bus along a teeth-jarring, gravel path, I arrived in this strange-and-forgotten little place.
Lamalera doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Yet.
Lamalera is mentioned in the Lonely Planet because of their unique fishing heritage. The village receives a very small trickle of travelers each year. So far, I have seen only two other Westerners in the village, but I’ve heard that National Geographic and BBC were here. Seeing that there are no shops, pubs, or restaurants, your only chance of meeting someone here is if they stay in your homestay. Your accommodation provides three humble meals a day — assuming the fishermen caught something — along with a hard bed.
As usual, I am the only one staying in my homestay, Abel O Bedding, which instead of making the resident family happy to have at least one customer, I am snarled at and treated as an inconvenience. The food and happiness levels here fall short of what you would find in the average prison. If you come to Lamalera, stay someplace else!
The men in Lamalera survive by going out in small, traditional boats to hunt full-sized whales, sharks, and dolphins with giant old-school harpoons. The spear man — who usually doesn’t know how to swim — somehow stands out on a small wooden plank while the boat rolls and pitches beneath him. If he sees something big, he jumps onto the back of the fish and uses his weight to stick the harpoon, hopefully surviving the encounter in the process.
You can imagine that most big fish don’t care for a harpoon being thrust inside of them, so usually a violent-and-bloody encounter ensues. A rope is attached to the boat and the fish pulls us along until it finally dies and is hauled on board or dragged back to shore. Nothing is wasted; every scrap of every fish is used in some way.
The fishermen only take around 20 whales a year but hunt sharks and dolphins every day except Sundays. This village was reached by missionaries, so the people are a strange mix of Christian and Animist. Conservation groups have studied the impact and have given these guys the okay to take whales for sustenance. They literally have no choice. Yes, I scuba dive, and yes, I love marine life dearly, but seeing a horde of hungry kids waiting on the beach with their ribs showing will make you re-prioritize fairly quickly.
My head was buzzing with adrenaline and fear of the unknown as I made my way down to the beach in the morning. There were already two large sharks in the sand that were taken during a night hunt. I hardly paid them any attention. Instead, I found a traditional boat about to depart and asked if I could join. My crappy Bahasa Indonesia here doesn’t work; the people speak their own dialect. Going hunting wasn’t free; I had to pay the equivalent of US $10 to tag along with the fishermen. National Geographic and a German documentary team just left a few weeks prior, and with elite tourism of that level, it’s no wonder that prices are high for such a remote place.
When I asked if there were any life vests, the man on the beach simply replied without a trace of humor or sarcasm: “Isn’t it better to just follow your destiny?”
There were 11 of us in a small boat that was probably designed for eight. I was the only tourist. A scattering of ropes, weapons, and different implements littered our little wooden vessel, and a very large, rolled-up sail dominated most of the room. My poor coral-infected feet were knocked and banged so much while trying to move around that blood was already oozing from underneath my wet bandages.
The Bapak, or father of the boat, was a charismatic-and-friendly old man with dark eyes and wrinkles hard earned over years of dangerous experiences. He said a prayer before we pushed off from shore. Everyone respectfully bowed their heads, and for a few minutes, the only sounds were of his prayers in the local dialect and the hollow sounds of water slapping the wooden boat.
I’ve never heard anything so beautiful.
Although I couldn’t understand his words, my heart raced with anticipation. This was clearly serious business; men drown frequently here as they wage war with the sea to feed their kids.
Pretty soon we were under way, buzzing along with considerable speed by a sputtering outboard motor. Within a few hours, the sun was already overhead and was rapidly turning my skin a deep red. The heat was overwhelming, and the constant rocking of the canoe was sickening. There was no shade on the boat and no place to escape. We simply sweated for a long time and then suddenly the crew came to life. I looked up and couldn’t believe my eyes…
There were dolphins everywhere.
More than I’ve ever seen in my life. Schools of 50 or more were breaking water in the distance. They seemed to hang in the air for seconds before crashing down into the churning water with their heavy bodies.
The harpoon man took his position and all eyes scanned the water as we raced to their last position. Every diver has fond memories of dolphins coming to play alongside the boats. They are social and fun-loving creatures, and I had expected the same thing to happen here…only this boat wasn’t full of admirers — it was full of hunters bristling with armament. I feared that I was about to witness an easy slaughter.
To my total relief, the dolphins ran.
Years of hearing the boat motors followed by smelling blood in the water has taught the dolphins here to run rather than to come toward the noise as they do at dive sites. Smart animals.
Suddenly there were shouts and points in another direction as the school of dolphins resurfaced 200 meters away. Again, we raced to their position only to miss them by seconds. This continued at least half a dozen times before, on the last attempt, I saw the harpoon man lower his weapon and plunge it home.
A hit. I even heard the thud of the metallic tip finding flesh.
The water churned red with blood, and men jumped to grab the rope before the wounded dolphin could dive. I did my best to get pictures and stay out of the way — not such an easy feat in a crowded boat with an unpredictable fish swimming all over the place. After about 10 minutes of struggle, the still-flipping dolphin landed in the boat with a heavy thump and a knife was stuck into it to end its suffering. Almost immediately, the bottom of the boat around my feet filled with red water. This was the first time I’ve ever had to use my microfiber cloth to wipe blood from my camera lens!
I can only describe the scene as total carnage. The metallic smell of iron-rich blood was heavy.
Despite the gruesome site, I was actually glad that we had landed a dolphin rather than one of the hammerhead or lemon sharks regularly taken. At least dolphins are easier to replenish than whales or sharks.
The boat sighed with relief; there would be food on the table tonight. Cigarettes were passed around — which I accepted with a shaking, bloody hand — and slaps on backs were given. Less than one meter away from me, a dead dolphin with a grin on its face looked at me with one grey eye. I was surprised at the rows of sharp teeth in its mouth.
By afternoon, the sun was so hot that the kill had begun to smell not so nice. The weather was turning, and our boat rocked back and forth. Between the smell and motion, it was all I could do not to be sea sick — which usually I have little problem with. You didn’t have to be a weatherman to know that all hell was going to break loose soon; the blue sky was boiling.
Unfortunately, we were not done, and we hunted throughout the long afternoon without further success. Even once the harpoon man lost his footing as he threw a miss and fell into the water. It was a miracle we didn’t hit him with the boat, and he was dragged back on board.
Like most fishermen here that spend their lives at sea, he couldn’t swim!
When Bapak decided that it was time to go home, the men hoisted a huge bamboo sail to try to save some petrol. Once the small catch (they sometimes take seven or more dolphins) was divided up, there would be nothing left to sell, so costs had to be cut. The sail was easily three times wider than our craft and every single gust of wind made us lean all the way over until water spilled over the sides. With the weight of the dolphin on one side, it wouldn’t take much to put us over.
I did my best to help balance the weight and to bail water. Not out of courtesy, but out of survival! This was no “tour,” I was literally expected to help — people would die if everyone on board didn’t do their parts.
I’ve logged quite a number of hours in bad boats of all types, but this was the first time I was actually seriously nervous. I could see the same on the faces of the crew as well, and they do this stuff six days a week! Over our heads, dark clouds moved in swirls and the weather went to hell.
When the drizzling rain began, Bapak made the decision to start the motor. I knew the situation was getting desperate. We raced toward shore with the sail still erect and flapping madly. With the combination of the two, we were even more out of control than before. I scanned around the boat trying to decide what was not tied down and would still be floating when the craft went under.
I tightened the seal on my dry bag — hence the lack of pictures during the chaos — and prepared for the worst. I guess I wouldn’t make a very good combat photographer.
I also realized that Indonesia apparently really wants to drown me. I had already narrowly escaped one drowning just months earlier while surfing in Bali!
My only reconciliation was Bapak standing tall, holding one of the masts, and staring at the shoreline; his sun-wrinkled face looked tired but showed no signs of fear. A real hero. I want to be this guy one day.
As the boat would lean, water would gush over the sides, followed by frantic shouts, bailing, and scrambling passengers.
It took nearly an hour of balancing, gritting teeth, and minor heart attacks to get back to shore where we were met by a horde of men and children who had come out to help. We were the only boat still out and the village had grown worried. They had gathered on the beach to watch — and pray — for us. Many were still thanking God when we came ashore.
I whispered a small “thank you” myself and jumped over the side into thigh-deep water to wade ashore. Had no one been watching, I would have kissed the sand. My clothes were covered with the stench of dolphin blood, my stomach sick, and my head pounding from the hot sun and sea sickness. Would I do it again?
All in all, this was one of the most interesting and crazy experiences I have had in Indonesia. I still highly recommend seeking this place out if you have a strong stomach and find yourself in this remote part of the world. Email me; I can give directions.
This is definitely one for the books for me — I will never forget it. How many people can say they’ve been whale hunting on a harpoon boat?
In case you’re wondering, dolphin and whale both have strong, oily tastes and enough mercury contamination to make you forget who you are for a few hours; nothing like the fish we are used to eating in the West. Still, it was delicious.
I felt like I had earned every bite.
See more pictures from my trip to Indonesia.