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Lamalera – The Traditional Whale Hunters of East Nusa Tenggara

Lamalera – The Traditional Whale Hunters of East Nusa Tenggara
Lamalera ? The Traditional Whale Hunters of East Nusa Tenggara

Sitting on the beach at Lamalera Village, on Lembata Island, on the shores of the Flores Sea, with a giant whale carcass just a couple of metres away, I found myself deep in conversation with Benjamin, a newfound friend. “Here in Lamalera, we’re devoutly Catholic,” he shared.

“Late April to early May marks Leva Nuang when our fishermen head to sea. That’s when the big fish—marlins, mantas, mola molas, dolphins, and whales—are caught,” he continued. “Our priest holds a Mass to bless the seafaring journey. Once this ceremony is conducted, the boatmen can set out to hunt whales. Our traditional boats have no engines, just oars. It’s been this way for centuries. And we use these,” he said, handing me a barbed bamboo harpoon. “A harpooner is called a Lama fa. Being a Lama fa is a revered position, with the skills passed down from the father to one chosen male in each family.”

Benjamin explained how a Lama fa must make sacrifices. No distractions are allowed during the season (May to October), whether at sea or on land. The harpooner can’t join a hunt if there’s trouble at home, like a domestic dispute. And there’s no sex, either, for a Lama fa. From May, for six months, the official whaling season, “No arguments with the missus and no hanky-panky,” he quipped.

Lama fa, a barbed bamboo harpoon used to hunt whales
Lama fa, a barbed bamboo harpoon used to hunt whales

Some boatmen can ascend to Lama fa status outside the father-son line, but only after years of being a water bailer or a whale spotter. Sitting at the beach, I watched gangs of kids down at the water’s edge, some as young as five years old, practising hoop throwing and aiming their sharpened sticks, mimicking harpoon strikes.

From May, local scouts are positioned on the village’s high tops with their eyes on the ocean – day after day. When a whale’s spotted, it’s all hands on deck. “Baleo, baleo!” the cries sound out, echoing through the village, signalling a sighting.

My guide, Poly, who is also a historian, explained the local people’s deep reverence for whales on Lembata Island. “We grow up singing their songs and hearing whale tales. Storytelling can run deep into the night, and these stories are always told with the utmost respect for the whale,” he said.

On my journey to Lamalera, about 10 km from the village, a whale was stranded in the bay. The roads were blocked, and the whole town had rushed to aid this struggling whale. The irony struck hard—saving one whale in one bay and hunting another whale in the next. It turns out the stranded whale had chased krill into the bay during high tide. He had got stuck at low tide. A Jakarta-based marine scientist team had flown in and worked with the locals to guide the whale out of the shallow bay. I secretly hoped that when the whale exited the bay, he would go north, not towards Lamalera Village, where he may be the next target and be a goner.

Lamalera runs deep with whaling history and Portuguese records dating from 1643 mentioning local hunts. The whale killing is strictly for subsistence. Whale goods can’t be sold for cash – they are only exchanged for produce. It has always been this way and remains the same to this day. Whaling is not, by any means, a commercial pursuit.

Whale hunting is a cultural tradition in Lamalera
Whale hunting is a cultural tradition in Lamalera

Once a whale’s taken down, the village shares its bounty. The Lama fa gets the most significant share. Because whale hunting is a cultural tradition, it is officially exempt from the global whaling ban in place. Studies claim the subsistence level does not significantly impact whale populations.

Amidst whale bones and curing blubber, I grilled Benjamin for more information and the hunt details. “The agile Lama fa stands ready at the bow with his harpoon rope tied to the boat,” he said. “He leaps, using his weight to pierce the whale’s skin. Other Lama fa joins, aiming for a swift end.” He continued, “It’s perilous work as the whale thrashes and attempts to dive deep. The Lama fa is at high risk of being dragged away. Once the whale is dead, the crew hauls it aboard—a daunting task hauling a 15-metre-long giant on board an old wooden boat. In October, a ritual ends the season. No more whales can be taken, and life returns to normal.”

This village of 2,000 people offers a glimpse of the past. Lamalera’s whale hunters follow ancient ways, using traditional tools only: wooden oars, sails, bamboo harpoons, wooden traditional boats and ropes (made from cotton thread, gebang leaves, and waru tree bark fibres).

Whale hunting on Lembata Island is a sustainably honoured centuries-old tradition. I walked away with a new sense of understanding and respect when I took the time to dig a little deeper into the meaning and history and learn a little more about this time-honoured practice.

Lamalera Village
Lamalera Village, East Nusa Tenggara
Fact File:
    • Lamalera village is located on Lembata Island, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.
    • Tour Guide, Pak Poly Kuya Atulolon
    • WhatsApp: +62 813 2795 1052, +62 822 3798 0260
    • Email: Pak Poly Beker [email protected]

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