Hunting whales with rowing boats and spears

By Taylor Kate Brown
BBC News Magazine


Commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but a remote Indonesian village is one of the few places still hunting whales using traditional methods.

From their homes perched on the slopes of a volcano, villagers look out over the Indian Ocean, watching the water intently.

A spout of water shoots up and cries of "baleo" echo across the mountain. A whale has appeared.

This is Lamalera, a village of 2,000 people and one of the last communities to hunt sperm whales in the traditional way, with harpoons and ropes.

They use similar methods to Western whalers in the early 19th Century - when crews travelled great distances in search of whales and their blubber for oil - and long before some species were hunted to near extinction.

The danger to the Lamalerans on the hunt is not unlike the life-and-death struggle described in Moby Dick, Herman Melville's famous novel about Nantucket-based whalers.

"Even though they were very experienced... there was still that sense of we were in very severe danger," says writer and explorer Will Millard, who spent a month in Lamalera.

The hunt was "horrible" to watch as a Westerner with conservation ideals, says Millard. But unlike industrial-scale hunting, where the animals were easily caught and processed to an unsustainable level, he feels this was at least a fair fight.

Media caption,
Will Millard goes on a whale hunt

"In Lamalera you felt the balance of power rest with the whale until the very end," he says.

After the whale is spotted, there is a mad sprint to the water. The first boat to harpoon the whale gets the best portion of the animal.

At the front of each vessel is the lama fa, the lead harpooner.

Experienced lama fa are highly respected because the accuracy of their aim determines the success of the hunt.

Some families are known for producing good lama fa, other men work their way up to the position after being water bailers or spotters.

"You'd see young boys - six, seven, eight - throwing little hoops in the sea," says Millard - they practice jumping into the water and hitting the inside of the hoops with long sticks.

The lama fa must be focused and not be distracted - Millard says one Lamaleran decided to not to join a hunt because he had an argument with his wife the evening before.

"If you have any kind of trouble at home, any type of negativity or negative thought you're not allowed to go to sea," he says. "It's deep superstition."

While the hunting methods are similar to Western whaling in the 19th Century, the Lamalerans' relationship with the sea is quite different.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Technology in the early 20th Century allowed some whales to be hunted to near extinction

A motor boat pulls them out to sea, but tradition means they must pull alongside the whale by their own power - when the times comes, they are cut loose and the crew rows furiously to get close enough to strike.

At the right moment, the lama fa leaps into the water, using the force of his own body weight and the iron tip of the bamboo harpoon to pierce the thick skin of the sperm whale.

If the lama fa is successful, the boat will be connected to the whale by a rope at the end of the harpoon. The whale may try to dive deep to escape, putting the boat and the crew in danger. And the lama fa must scramble back into the boat.

"You are being towed at quite a speed and you're out of control," Millard says. Western whalers knew it as "the Nantucket sleigh ride".

The Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
An 1835 engraving of a whale hunt in the Pacific Ocean

From the vibrating line extending the entire length of the upper part of the boat, and from its now being more tight than a harpstring, you would have thought the craft had two keels - one cleaving the water, the other the air - as the boat churned on through both opposing elements at once. A continual cascade played at the bows; a ceaseless whirling eddy in her wake; and, at the slightest motion from within, even but of a little finger, the vibrating, cracking craft canted over her spasmodic gunwale into the sea. Thus they rushed; each man with might and main clinging to his seat, to prevent being tossed to the foam; and the tall form of Tashtego at the steering oar crouching almost double, in order to bring down his centre of gravity. Whole Atlantics and Pacifics seemed passed as they shot on their way, till at length the whale somewhat slackened his flight.

Moby Dick, Chapter 61, Stubb Kills a Whale

Whales can take hours to tire, even after being hit with multiple harpoons.

"The grim realty is it's basically a waiting game, a very dangerous waiting game," Millard says. "People have been dragged out to sea for entire nights. There's been examples of guys who got dragged almost out to Timor [about 120km away] - and ate their own clothes to survive."

Other times, whales have destroyed boats entirely - one crew from Lamalera swam 12 hours to safety.

When the whale is too tired to continue fighting, someone jumps into the water and severs the spinal cord.

The animal is then brought back to the beach, where people are rewarded with a share based on their role. Men and women carve away blubber and dissect the whale - every piece is used, from the ribs to the heart.

One whale can produce enough meat to feed the entire community. During the hunting season which lasts several months, it can been weeks between whale kills - or in the case of Millard's trip - many can be killed in a single hunt.

Image caption,
Lamalerans also hunt manta rays

Lamalerans are allowed to hunt whales as they are considered aboriginal subsistence hunters by the International Whaling Commission.

They hunt for their own food stores and for barter with other villages, and sperm whales are not as endangered as other species.

But Lamalerans also catch manta rays and other large fish beyond subsistence levels - some of which they sell for cash.

The future of the hunt is unclear - many of the most talented lama fas are aging, and overfishing in the area could limit the food supply that brings the whales past Lamalera so regularly.

And the outside world is calling. The village was connected by a road a decade ago.

"People become aware of the fact that there is a easier life with a cash economy - goods and services and education that they can't get in Lamalera and that is a major draw card," Millard says.

"It's obviously a hell of a lot safer way of making a living."

Will Millard's Lamalera diary

At one point I was caught between two running ropes. Suddenly this was all very real indeed. They squeezed my waist as the lines screamed out in hot pursuit of the whale. I made it to the back of the boat OK, but nowhere was really safe. Seconds later the Nantucket "Hand of God" hovered in the air above the boat, the whale's tail momentarily poised to obliterate us all. I have no idea how long it took to die but it felt like forever.

Aloo had warned me it was "life and death out there", but until you have sat in that boat you can't really appreciate the gravitas of those words.

Hunters of the South Seas: The Whale Hunters of Lamaleraairs on BBC Two on Sunday, 26 April at 2100 BST.

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