The Hunt for the An­ces­tors’ Gift

Asian Diver (English) - - The Best of Voo -

On a sun­lit af­ter­noon, I reach the small bay of La­malera just when the fish­er­men are about to land their freshly speared sea har­vest. Ev­ery­one con­gre­gates to help push the John­sons back into the shel­ters, even the youngest chil­dren and the one-armed elder. It seems they have been quite suc­cess­ful to­day: Roughly a dozen manta rays, a mar­lin, a dol­phin, a black gi­ant tor­toise, and a shark are pulled ashore to be chopped up shortly af­ter.

Sur­vey­ing the mess of an­i­mal parts, I’m sud­denly re­minded of my scuba dives in Ko­modo Na­tional Park, where manta rays prom­ise good money from un­der­wa­ter tourists. In­done­sia is home to the world’s largest manta ray sanc­tu­ary, which has im­mense longterm tourism value; but in La­malera, this vul­ner­a­ble species re­mains a very com­mon and highly-prized catch.

Boys are seen mer­rily pad­dling round on their sty­ro­foam blocks, surf­ing on their wooden boards, or prac­tis­ing throw­ing a bam­boo stick in im­i­ta­tion of the hon­ourable La­mafa – the chief har­poon­ers they aim to be­come one day.

Around 7pm, most have al­ready had their din­ner: some rice, a piece of corn and a tiny por­tion of a sun-dried sea crea­ture of some sort.

At dawn the next day, the fish­er­men flock down to their John­sons, push­ing their boat over tree trunks straight down into the surf. Rou­tinely, they will re­turn home from the hunt in the late af­ter­noon, or much ear­lier, if there is a call for Ba leo, or sperm whale, which there is to­day.

“Ba leo, Ba leo! Carry the rope!“yells the look­out per­son from his van­tage point, wav­ing his white shirt ma­ni­a­cally to in­form the sea­far­ing crews to re­turn – it’s one of the last days be­fore the Leva Sea­son is of­fi­cially an­nounced. Once a whale is spot­ted, there is a mad sprint to the beach where the tra­di­tional

paledang boats are im­me­di­ately taken to the sea once the clans reach shore. I fol­low the crew of Petrus Glau Blikolu­long, or Papa Petro – a

And there he is: the sperm whale of Moby Dick fame. The sea rebels are get­ting en­raged – I wit­ness the blood­thirsty mood man­i­fested in the yelling and row­ing of the hunters

highly-re­spected La­mafa for 21 years. Ex­pe­ri­enced La­mafa like Papa Petro shoul­der a weighty re­spon­si­bil­ity for the com­mu­nity, and are greatly ap­pre­ci­ated by the whole vil­lage. Tra­di­tion­ally, a young fish­er­man will work his way up to the po­si­tion of La­mafa af­ter be­ing a wa­ter bailer or spot­ter. If he’s able to prove his courage to the crew, he might be elected to take the place of one of the 20 ag­ing La­mafa in La­malera.

Our paledang glides to sea. We’re the very last crew to go on this thrilling voy­age. In front of me sits the as­sis­tant of La­mafa Petrus. He is al­most equally im­por­tant be­cause of his re­spon­si­bil­ity to man­age the leo

– the sa­cred rope which is at­tached to the hook. In the back sits the Tuan Per­ahu, the boat boss, who gov­erns con­trol of the paledang. Some sailors act as whale spot­ters mon­i­tor­ing all di­rec­tions, while oth­ers pour out the wa­ter in our boat. Whilst we’re be­ing dragged from the John­son,

Papa Petrus dili­gently sharp­ens the hook be­fore at­tach­ing it onto the four-me­tre-long bam­boo cane.

And there he is: the sperm whale of Moby Dick fame. The sea rebels are get­ting en­raged – I wit­ness the blood­thirsty mood man­i­fested in the yelling and row­ing of the hunters. Cer­tainly, the dan­ger to the La­maler­ans dur­ing a hunt is not un­like the life-and-death strug­gle de­scribed in Moby Dick, Her­man Melville’s fa­mous novel about the Nan­tuck­et­based whalers. But most of­ten the men­ace is lim­ited: Ac­ci­dents usu­ally in­volve get­ting en­tan­gled in the leo or squeezed be­tween the whale and the paledang.

We let go of the rope which con­nects us to the en­gine-pow­ered boat and ap­proach the gi­ant by row­ing so as to re­main in the longestab­lished bound­aries. With eyes on the sur­fac­ing black back of the toothed preda­tor, we slowly inch for­ward. Then, there is si­lence. The whale’s side seems to be close enough. With the har­poon ready, Petrus awaits the right mo­ment, and fi­nally leaps off, 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 the La­mafa is suc­cess­ful, the boat will be con­nected to the whale by the leo at the end of the har­poon. The whale may try to dive deep, aim­ing to es­cape, putting the boat and the crew in dan­ger. Whales can take hours to tire, even af­ter be­ing speared by mul­ti­ple har­poons. So you might be dragged along at full speed for sev­eral hours. In our case, Petrus pierced the whale’s flesh, but its tail some­how shook off the har­poon. The John­son crew hur­ries back and we start chas­ing the whale once again.

Spear­ing a whale isn’t easy. The grim re­al­ity is that a fair part of hunt­ing con­sists of be­ing ex­posed to a mer­ci­less sun for hours while scout­ing des­per­ately for a sur­fac­ing whale tail. No one dares to say a word. All I can hear is the sound of rip­ples gen­tly crash­ing against our yawn­ing

paledang. We’re about 10 kilo­me­tres away from La­malera, and af­ter some hours of search­ing, the de­ci­sion is made to ven­ture back empty-handed.

IMAGES: Clau­dio Sieber

ABOVE: Papa Petrus leap­ing off the boat with har­poon in hand, pierc­ing the whale with its sharp­ened tip OP­PO­SITE PAGE TOP: A vil­lager car­ry­ing her share of whale meat af­ter a full day of butcher­ingOP­PO­SITE PAGE BOT­TOM: A pair of young chil­dren rub­bing out oil from a chunk of whale blub­ber

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