We waited in apprehensive silence, the waves quietly splashing around the hull of the wooden boat- as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean- the young boat crew puffing on long, hand rolled cigarettes, mixing the faint sea breeze with the harsh, brazen smell of their tobacco as they pulled in their fishing lines from the depths of the sea below and sharpened their harpoons with a menacing determination.
The sun beat down relentlessly over the boat as I gazed back on the small village of Lamalera we had set out from hours before; a line of ramshackle huts enclosed on both sides by a rocky outcrop of cliffs- the village, an echo of an age long past, where the fishermen risk their lives daily in rickety boats armed only with wooden harpoons, courage and the burning desire to provide for their families as they 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, Indonesia.
The crew began hauling on the lines quicker as they became taut and heavy in their hands before the silence was abruptly broken by yells of excitement as a dark shadow flitted under the boat. The crew 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 long, 10ft wooden harpoon.
As the shadow passed the boat again, this time closer to the surface, the captain braced himself, then leapt, throwing his whole body weight behind the harpoon and plunging it into the huge fish with a sickening, nauseating thud.
He scrambled back on board as a second crew member thrust another harpoon into the fish from the side of the boat and the water around us gained a reddish tinge. The fish was a moon fish, of ferocious size and shape that threatened to escape the hunters and refused to surrender lightly in its bid for survival.
A third crew member pulled a knife from its sheath, a serrated saw like weapon and leaped over the side, adeptly avoiding the thrashing fins that were churning up the surface of the water, before he attacked the fish, struggling with it in the frothing red water. Minutes later a bloody, mangled fin was thrown into the boat and the fisherman climbed back on board.
But the work was far from over, as another harpoon was thrust home and the fish dragged to the side of the boat through sheer determination and brute human 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 threatening to spill us all into the ocean.
With the catch precariously balanced on the side of the boat, the men cut the lines and pulled the huge hook from its mouth before tying it down to the boat. Then they began pulling in the remainder of their lines, as the moon fish harrowingly continued to gasp for breath and by the time the sun began to set in a tropical, disturbingly fitting haze of red and orange, the bottom of the boat was filled with the flapping forms of tuna fish and sting ray unfortunate enough to have snared themselves on the fishermen’s hooks.
I’d arrived on the island a day previously, intrigued by the prospect of experiencing first hand a life unusual in modern times. Naive thoughts of living my own moby-dick-esque adventure ran wild through my imagination on the week long land and sea odyssey from Bali but were met by the brutal reality of the harsh, unforgiving and tenuous existence of a small community of people, heroically clinging to their traditional, centuries old way of life in the adverse face of depleting sea stocks, illegal trawling and anti-whaling activists branding their sustainable whaling as part of the wider world problem of declining marine mammal populations.
Strolling along the beach front, a grey, scarred old man pointed to the bones ornamenting his small hut, bleached white by the sun, 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 running battle 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 as 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 to indiscriminately harvest huge numbers of whales in a single trip.
At the homestay 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 cue to tell me of his dislike for the ‘Japanese’. He told me of the frequent visits by activists to the village, telling him to stop hunting whales and dolphins, to which he tells 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 spoils 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 as a whole in the desperate grasp of poverty, forcing the inhabitants away from their ancestral homes and traditional 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 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 as the crew intensely scanned the horizons for any faint sign of a potential catch. Then- without saying 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. As we closed in I began to see dolphins breaking the surface, occasionally leaping out of the water or somersaulting into the air before plunging back into the sea.
The captain was passed a harpoon and the pilot began maneuvering the boat wildly, trying to keep pace with the dolphins, trying to herd them and get alongside. The dolphins were diving under the boat as it closed in, agile and quick. The Captain, when he thought he could get a hit, hurled the harpoon into the water. He had missed, and he 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 for the fishermen closed as the pod, replenished, could dive again, not to return.
The crew were silent and discontent as 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.
I was glad the dolphins had escaped, but I also knew that the fishermen saw these creatures in a much different light to my Western gaze.