The whaling village of Lamalera

The whaling village of Lamalera

Ask yourself why you are going.

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A “traditional” whaling village on the south coast of Lembata, Lamalerans are whaling today largely as they have for centuries and are resisting suggestions and government prodding to change their ways. Travellers may find a visit to Lamalera fascinating, confronting or a bit of both.

Travelfish says:

The village is set across two bays (a related village, Lamalera B sits on higher ground before Lamalera proper) looking over the Savu Sea, a prime migratory route for sperm and blue whales. Orcas also pass by, while whale sharks, dolphins, pilot whales (a type of dolphin) and manta rays are also present in the area. Lamalera has an official whaling season which commences on May 1, running until the end of August.

Lamalera is all about whales. : Stuart McDonald.
Lamalera is all about whales. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling allows some indigenous people to hunt whales. While Indonesia is not a signatory to the treaty, it is under the subsistence and “well we’ve been doing this forever” angle that villagers suggest they should be allowed to retain and practise their traditional way of life. The official Indonesian tourism website suggests a typical seasonal catch is 15 to 20 whales while reports from journalists suggest catches can be significantly higher (51 sperm whales in 2007) and lower (six in the first half of 2012).

Why are Lamalerans catching whales? We were told that apart from tradition, the primary reasons are that (a) the fishing in this area is otherwise poor—something to do with the topography of the sea bottom, (b) the landscape surrounding the village has little arable land suitable for cultivation, and (c) because it is what they know how to do. Whale meat is bartered for food from other surrounding villages and some is dried for lean periods when no whales are to be caught.

We arrived to see the butchering of a pilot whale just commencing. : Stuart McDonald.
We arrived to see the butchering of a pilot whale just commencing. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Whaling operates across a clan system (we were told there are seven clans, but other sources say there are 12), each with a wooden boat specifically designed with whaling in mind. The boat carries a crew of seven to a dozen, with a long prow from which the harpooning is done. While the boats are equipped with outboard motors, we were told that these are used only until the boat nears their quarry, after which the engine is switched off and they are paddle powered. This may be the case with the whales, as this closely edited 2013 BBC clip suggests, but there are other videos clearly indicating outboards are used while dolphins are harpooned.

Once harpooned, whales can be extremely dangerous. They may smash a boat with their tail, dive deep and take the boat with them, or in one frequently reported case, tow a boat most of the way to Timor (here the crew cut the rope and were stranded at sea for days). Aside from disasters like these, the whales are repeatedly harpooned until exhausted at which time one of the crew jumps in and severs the spinal column to kill the whale.

By the time they are finished, almost nothing is left. : Stuart McDonald.
By the time they are finished, almost nothing is left. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Once towed back to Lamalera, the whales (and anything else caught) are landed on the main beach and butchered there and then. Everything is divided up according to an elaborate system assigning different portions to people from widows to the crew to boat owners and the disabled. In a point Lamalerans are keen to highlight, nothing goes to waste—a valid point of contrast to traditional mass fishing and the waste in bycatch it creates. They'll also happily complain about the Taiwanese long line trawlers whose lights you can see over the horizon at night... hardly stand-up characters for sustainable fisheries.

It is important to note that while the villagers’ belief system dictates how the spoils are divided up and means they don’t catch blue whales (one supposedly saved a family), nor pregnant or baby whales, this pass isn't necessarily extended to other species. The day we visited, a large whale shark (a protected species) was caught, as was a pregnant hammerhead shark (the baby sharks were pulled out of the uterus and divided up along with the rest of the shark). Media reports document baby dolphins being harpooned. Dolphins and pilot whales are regularly caught—five pilot whales on the day we visited.

Harpoon gashes in the whale shark. : Stuart McDonald.
Harpoon gashes in the whale shark. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Travellers we met on the beach were invited to join a boat where they would hunt dolphins—an approach seemingly out of touch to a tourism clientele perhaps more likely to want a boat trip where you just get to see dolphins rather than see and kill them. 200,000 rupiah per person was the quoted rate; perhaps you could ask to pay this and see them only.

Alternatives have been suggested in the past including whale watching and a quota system, neither of which the villagers were receptive to. Other issues, which face many traditional industries, include youth heading to other Indonesian centres and not taking up the mantle of whaling. This thinning younger generation is causing difficulties in passing on whaling skills.

Two of the other pilot whales caught that day awaiting slaughter. : Stuart McDonald.
Two of the other pilot whales caught that day awaiting slaughter. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Time has brought change. The village is now on the electrical grid, has a phone signal (and a patchy 3G signal) and road access has improved dramatically. While the economy has traditionally been barter based, this has changed with road access—tourists and locals alike pay for plenty of things in cash.

An obvious community-based pivot, which would turn a living museum into, well, a museum, and from whale and dolphin hunting to whale and dolphin watching, is hamstrung by the very few domestic and international tourists who visit Lamalera. We were one of three foreign tourists in the village on the day we visited and a guestbook in the homestay we stayed at listed 23 guests in the first five months of the year... at least from this point of view tourism can only increase!

Kids watch as a fisherman divides out the baby hammerheads. : Stuart McDonald.
Kids watch as a fisherman divides out the baby hammerheads. Photo: Stuart McDonald

While sperm whales and other catches like pilot whales and spinner dolphins are not considered to be endangered, that the village is still killing endangered species is problematic. On the day we visited, both a whale shark and a pregnant hammerhead shark were brought in. That Indonesia is home to the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary, which has tremendous long-term tourism value, while manta rays remain a very common catch at Lamalera, is a major contradiction. In the least, shutting down the hunting of endangered species would be a good start in our humble opinion.

So, should you go?

A large whale skull and the boats leaving for another day of whaling. : Stuart McDonald.
A large whale skull and the boats leaving for another day of whaling. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Do you have a serious interest in traditional fishing methods? If so, yes. Otherwise we’d say do some research and ask yourself why you really want to go. And if you do go, please don't do the dolphin-hunting tour.

One last thing. On the western headland, there are two Portuguese cannons—we doubt they were used for whaling.

Reviewed by

Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

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