The Hunt for the Ancestors’ Gift
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.
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