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Around the world, the village of Lamalera on the island of Lembata on Flores is known as the home of traditional whale hunting. Portuguese documents dating back to 1643 already mention that these heroic hunts were sighted then.
In Lamalera, villagers hunt large sea animals, like whales, manta rays and sometimes dolphins to provide food and a living for the entire village, which they undertake on simple sailboats and following ancient beliefs, taboos and tradition.
It is for these reasons, therefore, that the Lamalera whale hunts are until this day exempt from the international ban on whaling, considering the traditional way this is still done and the fact that hunting these giant ocean creatures help villagers support their subsistence economy.
Annually, whales migrate between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific during May through October, when these giant sea animals pass the Savu sea right at the doorstep of the island of Lembata. For Lembata, therefore, whale hunting starts on 1 May reaching its peak in July.
When a whale hunt is decided, a number of boats parked on the beach are released from their simple shelters, cheered on by the entire village , and a troupe of boats will set sail together to catch their harvest.
Before that, however, everyone gathers to attend a dedicated mass led by the local Catholic priest to pray for a succesful and safe expedition. For, the majority of the inhabitants here are Catholic.
The actual whaling is still done on traditonally flimsy wooden boats, called peledang. These are manned by between 7 – 14 helmsmen, oarsmen and harpooner, where each is assigned his special duties. The most agile of the team stands on the bow ready with a barbed harpoon.
When a whale or manta is sighted, he throws his harpoon into the animal jumping down on the harpoon itself so as to give it his additional weight. When the target is a huge sperm whale and it is a hit, other team members throw more harpoons on the prey. And when it is finally disabled, together all team members heave up the heavy body onto the boat. Other villages who also hunt for whales are from the Lamakera village on the island of Solor, but the Lamalera village is the most well known.
During one season, islanders may catch between 15 to 20 whales.
The Whale Hunting Ritual
In 1996, Oxford University researcher, R.H. Barnes wrote the “Sea Hunters of Indonesia: Fishers and Weavers of Lamalera”, describing this communal hunt for sperm whales (Physeter macrocepalus) by the villagers in Lamalera, on Lembata Island.
The village of Lamalera is surrounded by rocky hills and barren land, facing the wild sea of Savu.
When whaling season arrives, the boats are released. Crowds cheer as more boats, locally called peledang, glide out from the najeng, the boat houses. Tale leo, the rope made out of local vegetation, is hoisted to raise the sail. Another tale leo is fastened to the spiky harpoon. The whale hunt can take hours, and in some instances, it can take lives. The villagers catch only sperm whales as the tradition holds. Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) occasionally pass by the surrounding waters. However, these villagers would lead the approaching blue whales to the open sea and give them a warm good bye. Blue whales are considered taboo to hunt as they are believed to be the keepers of the Lamalera. They consider the blue whale as their mother, and hunting them is thus a sin.
When a whale approaches, the lamafa, the harpoonist jumps off the boat and stabs the cetaceans with a tempuling, a handmade harpoon. The heart-stopping action of a lamafa is one of the anticipated moments in the world of visual documentation. The curious visitors would wait for days to come along with the groups of matros, boatmen led by a lamafa. They would stay with the fishermen and the families to understand the fishermen’s unique lives. Baleo! Baleo! The villagers shout out as the awaited whale surfaces in the distance.
There are more taboos for the Lamaleras when it comes to whale hunting. It is also forbidden to hunt pregnant whales, young whales, and mating whales. This capacity to recognize these specific taboos can only be learnt through extensive periods of experience. Unfortunately, some elders worry that the tradition is vanishing as youngsters tend to separate tradition from convenient modernity, so that future generations will no longer adhere to such precious traditional values.
In response to the impending threat of disappearance, elders of Lamalera have transformed the seasonal practice into a festival called the Baleo Festival, which was started in 2009 and held annually until now. During the festival, traditional costumes are donned, and those who were born and raised in Lamalera congregate to make the festival not just a success, but also a legacy for the descendants of Lamalera. The message of the ancestors must be passed down, which is to keep the tradition and local wisdom alive.
Prior to the kotoklema hunt, a lefa, a ritual led by the village elder or a church priest, is held to invite the anticipated whales. One boat can accommodate 7 to 12 matros, led by a lamafa or also called balafaing. When a lamafa springs into the water and thrusts the harpoon to the heart of the sea giant, the matros must be ready to handle the potential danger caused by the injured whale, which will often swim under and drag the boat with it. Three to four stabs are needed to paralyze the targeted whale, so the boat can tow the catch back to the village, and share it with the rest of the people ashore.
East Nusatenggara is truly an awe-inspiring destination for those who define adventure from different points of view. You can find bau nyale, the sea worm catching festival, pasola, the horse riding and javelin hurling festival, and the fascinating caci, whip battle dance here. Stop by the city of Kupang or Maumere, and explore the rest of the island at Ngada and other villages to learn some of the magnificent early traditions.
If you are not into gory scenes, this hunt can be very disturbing. You may want to stay ashore. When you decide to go along in a boat led by a lamafa, you should be ready with all the risks. It is highly recommended, therefore, that you go along on a different boat, as the raging whale can be very deadly. Beware of the frenzy as you may lose your equipment, especially your cameras.
Lembata Island is 190 kilometers north of Kupang, the capital city of East Nusatenggara. Loweleba is the largest city in Lembata Island, and perched at the southern coast of the island. To get to Lowelaba, fly from Bali or Lombok to Maumere at the Frans Seda airport.
From Maumere, go to Larantuka by bus. From Larantuka, the only way to go to Lamalera is by ferry crossing to Lewoleba which ply each day, or straight to Lamalera from Larantuka with a once-a-week ferry.