Hunting for Whales



…Indonesia is one of my favourite countries in the world.  I spent a lot of time here in my twenties, just roaming around, visiting as many as I could of the seventeen odd thousand islands that make up this immense archipelago.  Back then, coming to the remote island of Lembata would probably have involved a gruelling week long journey sleeping on the deck of one of Indonesia’s fabled PELNI cruise liners that were the preferred form of long distant transport for backpackers like myself at the time.  That’s not to say that in 2009 getting here is an easy task, not least from Mombasa, my last port of call for Human Planet, which, as you would imagine, is by no means a well trodden path.  It took four days as it turns out, each one adding to the growing expectation of what I might discover in the famous whaling village of Lamalera, which was to be my final destination.

Lamalera’s Whaling tradition is quite well documented, often cited as being a good example of a sustainable whale cull due to the local fishermen’s reluctance to embrace modern whaling technology, preferring instead to stick to their traditional method of hunting with paddle-driven peladang’s and bamboo harpoons. The concensus opinion suggests that the best time to come here to experience a whale capture is between the months of May and September when the seas are at their calmest, but in reality, whales are caught here all year round on an as-and-when basis, forming just one portion of the immense plethora of nutritious bounty prised from the waters around this island destined to end up on the dinner plates of Lamalera’s inhabitants.

Arriving at our house overlooking the beach last week I was greeted by BBC cameraman Jon with the surprising news that no whales had actually been caught here for over 2 months.  He arrived a week before me and was already well accustomed to the daily ritual of going to bed at 8pm then rising at 5am to begin 10 hours of searching for ways to pass the time whilst keeping one eye on the ocean for the chance of glimpsing the distant plume from a whale’s exhalation on the horizon and the possibility of filming this age old Lamaleran spectacle.

As I write this, I’ve been here nearly two weeks and still no sign of any whales.  Maybe they finally got wise to the fact that swimming near Lembata is not a good idea at this time of the year.  If they have then they are certainly alone in this wisdom amongst their oceanic co-inhabitants.  Judging by the size of catch that fishermen here are pulling in every morning I think it’s fair to say that the waters around here are not facing any impending environmental catastrophe.  Below is a photo I shot this morning of an average night’s net fishing from a small paddle boat just off the coast from where I’m sitting.  I say average because last week one fisherman came limping home with his boat practically submerged due to its bounty of 7 huge marlin, a couple of them topping 7 foot in length.

I can think of worse places to be stuck twiddling my fingers.  Lamalera is a friendly village, currently playing host to no fewer than 3 camera crews from France, Malaysia and the UK as well as an American photographer and myself, which can make for an interesting comedy of errors when anything remotely interesting happens in the vicinity.  Luckily, packs of playing cards are plentiful here and many of us had the foresight to load up our hard drives with unwatched AVIs, the current favourites doing the rounds being the brilliant Flight of the Concords and a beautifully funny documentary called King of Kong which charts the sublime lives of a group of ageing world class classic video gamers in the States

3pm every day signals the traditional cut off point for any potential whale capturing activities by the fishermen and offers us all the opportunity to get out of the house and into the ocean for a spot of fun, for myself a chance to live out some personal Big Blue fantasies that I’ve been suppressing for quite a while since the last time I visited a pristine turquoise ocean.  Evidently I’m not alone in this desire, sharing it with amongst others, Paul (below), a lucky intern from the UK working with our underwater team and currently missing the new university term in order to stay on for this ever-expanding waiting game.

9am lecture anyone?

9am lecture anyone?

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5 Responses to “Hunting for Whales”

  1. Tim Blankley says:

    I had the chance to visit Lomblen in 1986. I walked across the island in the heat as they burned off small plots. Then drank local rice wine while very dehydrated. The trip to get there however was that not difficult. I took a local ferry overnight from Kupang to Larantuka, and then a small boat, about 8 hours I guess to Lomblen. That was arranged in the port. Coming back was tough though as the captain of the small boat harassed me constantly, wanted to lie next to me and then wanted to fist fight.

  2. Alberto says:

    Wow, all your photos are beautifully composed. I wish I had an eye for taking photos like these. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Des says:

    Just beautiful!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Once again these are beautiful images and great compositions. The one that sticks out the most to me is the one with the silhouette of the paddleboat. There are a lot of strong lines to help the viewer move around the image. It’s always interesting to see a glimpse of life by the ocean especially since I’ve always lived near the middle of the U.S.

    • Timothy says:

      Glad you like the ocean stuff. The next two stories we’ll be covering are also sea-based. We’re in Sabah, Malaysia with sea gypsies at the moment, moving on to the Philippines in a couple of weeks.

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