© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

See the last whalers in the world in Lembata Island

3 minutes to read

Tucked away among other small islands just east of Flores, Lembata fits the "tropical paradise" cliché pretty well. Beaches are good for swimming, without dangerously high waves, the sea bottom is covered in coral gardens, volcanoes (including one currently erupting) suggest a relatively easy adventure, and tribal villages preserve old animist beliefs. But the reason this little chunk of land is well known among ethnographers and researchers is the settlement of Lamalera: the last community of traditional legal whalers in the world.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Whalers of Lamalera

If you are already imagining indifferent workers butchering the poor potentially sapient cetaceans with the help of heavy machinery, think again. Even the obvious reference to Moby Dick will do you little good: here it is even less technological and even more sacral. The people of Lamalera are formally Christian, but the bulk of their customs and beliefs are unique, endemic, and inevitably connected to the sea. They claim to have come here centuries ago in traditional wooden boats, which they hold to be alive. The number of these sacred boats cannot change: if one of them sinks, a month-long fast is observed in the village, and then an exact copy of the lost vessel is constructed and launched. Only such "living" boats can be used for whale-hunting, and no engines can be operated anywhere nearby. Less authentic motorboats are employed for ordinary transportation and sometimes to hunt manta rays and sharks. Any catch is taken using harpoons only: nets, traps, and even fishing rods are forbidden.

Lamalera, Pulau Lembata
Lamalera, Pulau Lembata
Lamalera A, Wulandoni, Lembata Regency, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Baleo

The local word for a whale is "baleo". If you hear the captain shouting this from the bow of your boat, consider yourself lucky: he has spotted one of the great marine mammals. The hunt has begun. Wooden rowboats, with 10 to 12 rowers and a harpooner in each, start the chase. Calves, pregnant females and any whales engaged in mating games are exempted. Otherwise, it is a relatively fair play: a single blow of a giant fin can smash the primitive vessel with little bald monkeys inside. Not every harpoon, a simple bamboo shaft with an iron head, penetrates the thick skin. A major cetacean migration route passes near the shores of Lembata, and whales are seen often, but only 5-10 per year are killed to feed the village of Lamalera.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Nowadays, the whalers are used to curious Westerners and gladly lend them a spot on the boat - for a fee that would be enough to hire a motorboat for a day, except nothing with an engine is allowed to approach the whales. Do not even think of trying it if you are prone to sea-sickness: the boats wobble on the waves in all three dimensions and possibly create additional dimensions just to wobble in them (at least that is how it feels). On most days, no whales are spotted, and even if they show up, most often the rowers cannot keep up with them. Expect to see the whalers settle for large fish and the occasional dolphin. If you do end up participating in a whale hunt, count yourself extremely lucky, extremely wet, and if it goes awry, extremely dead. The whaling season starts in May and lasts for half a year. 

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Other attractions

Thickly forested Lembata is inhabited by some interesting fauna, and the ocean around is good for diving, with lots of coral gardens at low depths. Beaches are as good as anywhere in Indonesia. Most villages come with some weird ethnic twist - preserved ancient skulls, animist festivals, etc., although none is as unique as the last whalers in the world. Tribal markets gather on Sundays in a few designated spots, one of them just a few km from Lamalera. Traditionally, all trade in such fairs is conducted by direct barter, without money, but if you suddenly decide to purchase a machete or a bunch of bananas, your rupees will be accepted as well. There are two volcanoes on Lembata and one more, Batu Tara, on the nearby Komba island. Most of the time, at least one of them shows some activity. Currently, it is the biggest of the three, Ile Lewotolok, erupting with a weak lava flow. Climbing it should be quite straightforward, merely a long day hike, if the eruption permits you to do it safely. To reach Batu Tara, charter a motorboat from one of the fishing villages. Climbing it is not too technical but more difficult than it appears from below.

Ile Lewotolok volcano, Lembata Island
Ile Lewotolok volcano, Lembata Island
Ile Lewotolok, Unnamed Road, Jontona, Ile Ape Tim., Kabupaten Lembata, Nusa Tenggara Tim., Indonesia
Batu Tara volcano, Komba Island
Batu Tara volcano, Komba Island
Komba Island, Indonesia

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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