The Whale Hunters of Lamalera

Lembata is a small island in the eastern most region of Indonesia known as the Lesser Sunda Islands. To its west lies other islands in the archipelago, most notably Solor and the larger island of Flores. To the south across the Savu Sea is another large island: Timor. Like other islands in Indonesia’s “Ring of Fire”, Lembata is volcanically active.

The remote village of Lamalera in the island is home to the world’s last true subsistence whalers. The people of Lamalera have been spearing and landing sperm whales by hand for at least 600 years. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling bans whale hunting but allows some indigenous people to hunt whales for their own consumption. For the Lamalerans, the whales are regarded as a gift of the gods. Every successful hunt feeds an entire community for months.

Each year, sperm whales and other cetaceans migrate between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. And from May until late October, these giants pass through the Savu Sea and will feed on the many big squids of Lembata’s southern shore. There, the Lamalerans will await them in small fleets of sailing boats and harpoons.

Modelof a Lamaleran whale-hunting boat, wood, early 20th century. Private collection


When a whale is spotted, the whalers on board take on a hunting frenzy mood, driven by decades of experience in collective baiting. The chase begins. The giant is approached with harpoon at the ready. The most experienced whaler awaits the right moment, then finally leaps off to the air, using the force of his own body weight and the iron tip of the bamboo harpoon to pierce the thick skin of the sperm whale. If he is successful, the boat will be connected to the whale by a thick rope at the end of the harpoon. The whale may try to dive deep, aiming to escape, putting the boat and the crew at risk. Whales can take hours to tire, even after being speared by multiple harpoons. So the boat may be dragged along at full speed for several hours before the monster or the crew is exhausted.

After a successful hunt, the whale is brought onshore in low tide to a waiting clan. The whalers with their entire families in tow carve away blocks of blubber and strip the whale to the last piece. Nothing is wasted; even exotic parts like the whale’s penis is sold as Chinese medicine and the blubber IS used to release oil for cooking. For the villagers, the most essential part of a whale is obviously its meat, which is sliced and sun-dried to feed many families for the months to come.

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