The Lamalera Whale Hunters

Dolphin heads on the beach

When do indigenous hunting rights become a danger to the environment? Do we want whale hunting to become a tourist attraction? Should we eat in a restaurant that primarily serves dolphin meat? So many questions.

As we, along with our friends Elma and Marnix, approached the remote island of Lembata, Thomas and I were highly undecided about whether we wanted to visit Lamalera, the controversial whale hunting village on the south coast of the island.

Visitors to our site know we are very interested in the indigenous peoples of the world. But we are also dedicated wildlife lovers as well as avid divers. Lembata is really the first place where these interests have collided in such a dramatic way.

As we sat in Lembata’s tiny capital Lewoleba, I was still torn between whether to visit the village or move on and make an ethical statement by skipping it. At moments, bypassing the village seemed silly. At other moments, it felt necessary. I simply couldn’t decide.

Whale meat dries in Lamalera

When we suddenly discovered that, due to the ferry schedule, visiting Lamalera would mean being trapped on Lemabata for eight days, I seemed to have a complete decision-making meltdown. I reflected on video footage of Lamalera hunters beating a dolphin to death (see below) and on an article I had read showing the tribe slicing up a whale shark. Sources suggest Lamalera hunters kill around 25 whales per year as well as hundreds of dolphins, whale sharks, mantas and other pelagics. Some even suggest aggressive hunting by the whale hunters might be having an impact on the population of whale sharks off of Australia’s stunning Ningaloo Reef.

From firsthand experience, we both understood that small-scale indigenous hunting can have a significant impact on the environment. Although Lembata is remote, interest in the whale hunters has caused the Indonesian government to start promoting the Lamalera hunters as a sort of cultural “tourist attraction”. I had read numerous articles on the subject, and in the end, I strongly felt visiting the village was both important and stupid. Hmmm.

Butchering dolphins on the beach

So there we stood with Elma and Marnix waiting to board the truck to make the rugged journey across the island to isolated Lamalera and I suddenly asked myself, do I want to spend a week in a place where everyone is chopping up the animals I love most. For me, the answer was no. Thomas agreed. Suddenly, we stepped back and waved goodbye to our friends, whom we had been traveling with for the last three weeks. Such a strangely abrupt goodbye. In one spontaneous decision, all plans had changed.

Later that day, we met Katrin, a French traveler who had just returned from Lamalera and was boarding our overnight ferry to Alor. (Katrin provided the pictures for this post.) She told a story of slaughtered whales, drying meat, partying villagers, decapitated dolphins, the overwhelming stench of whale flesh, and surviving on a diet of rice and dolphin. It sounded fascinating and horrible at the same time. Somehow, I both envied her and felt a serious sense of relief at not having visited. Perhaps, that dual reaction best encapsulates the complex story of Lamalera. Even after having visited, Katrin seemed to speak in that same dual reaction of fascination and disgust. Perhaps, there is no clear answer to the debate over traditional hunting in Lamalera.

A piece of dolphin meat on the beach

While traditional hunting practices might me debatable, I would suggest that Lamalera whale hunting should not become a tourist attraction and visitors should not encourage hunting by paying for outings. I would also hope that guidebooks would be rewritten to actively discourage whale-hunting tourism. Even while researching a visit to Lamalera, I discovered several blog posts from travelers who had payed to join whale hunting trips and then afterwards urged others not to do the same. I also discovered an interesting video which I am including below:

Footage of Dolphin Hunt

So in the end, this is one place we did not visit and one experience we chose not to have. We would love to hear your thoughts on the complex topic of indigenous hunting practices and tourism in the comment section below as well as any personal descriptions of a visit to Lamalera.

12 responses to “The Lamalera Whale Hunters”

  1. I just want to say that just because a thing is humanly possible, doesn’t mean we have to do it.

    We, Homo sapiens, are big and strong with deadly weapons that can kill just about anything we come across. We are also omnivores who seem to be able to eat most any living thing except cellulose.

    And we have big, intelligent brains along with something called a conscience that allow us to make moral choices and weigh the pros and cons of an issue.

    I’m happy that you two made that conscious decision and chose not to visit a place where you would be forced to compromise your principles. If killing large, charismatic sea creatures is the only way those people have of supporting themselves, so be it. You don’t have to participate.

    And for the record, just because it’s humanly possible to jump off a bridge connected to a bungie cord, doesn’t mean I have to do it.

    • avatar Tony says:

      It might seem like this was a super-easy decision for me. It actually wasn’t. While Lamalera hunting is a nightmare from a naturalist point of view, it’s also an amazing piece of living human history. From an anthropological standpoint, a tribe surviving off whaling is fascinating. One way or another, this culture will vanish in the near future. (Hopefully due to environmental protections rather than overhunting.)

      Their way of life is clearly at odds with the environmental protections required by a 21st century planet, but it would have been interesting to talk to them about that and see if they had any real comprehension of what they were doing. I am continually fascinated by how little traditional communities seem to comprehend topics such as overfishing and reef protection. We’ve heard repeatedly that the Lamalera hunters are increasingly having difficulty finding whales and dolphins and are having to move further and further afield. Do they believe that they are causing that? Are they blaming commercial fishermen or others?

      In the end, it was really the idea of whaling becoming a tourist attraction which kept me away. I didn’t know how my hotel dollars, food dollars and such would influence their hunting. I had already pretty much decided I would not join a hunt (I had visions of me grabbing the harpoon at the last second and ending up in a fight with one of the whalers.) And although I was very curious about their culture, I really didn’t want to see dolphin parts strewn across the beach. I also DID NOT want to eat dolphin or whale.

  2. avatar Greeneyes says:

    Congrats, you two.
    You definitely made the right decision.
    LOVE YOU
    and
    PROUD OF YOU
    Mom

  3. avatar Carrie Ann says:

    The second video brought tears to my eyes and I couldn’t watch the entire thing. Tony, I appreciated the questions you ask yourself about the mindset of the people who hunt. I am shocked to know that whale hunting is now a tourist attraction. I will have to bring this up in class. This post makes me feel so sad but I am happy that I am more aware. Uggg.

  4. avatar Simon Cadman says:

    I visited Lamalera about 2 years ago. I was in Lewoleba and all the locals told me I should go visit. I had some concerns before getting there, but I guess it wasn’t as big a struggle as you had. When I got there, I discovered it to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. It wasn’t whaling season, so (perhaps thankfully) I didn’t see any whale or dolphin slaughter. But what I did find was an amazing little village, unlike any other I visited, whose life revolved around the hunting of whales. What helped me accept it, was the fact that they were jumping into the water and harpooning the whales w/ there bare hands. It wasn’t machine vs animal. I felt they had at least earnt the right to catch the whale, in the same why I would be much less sad seeing an African tribesman kill a lion w/ a spear as opposed to a hunter w/ a gun.
    I spent one afternoon on the beach, where the local boys (about 10 years old or so) were all practicing there harpooning skills in the water w/ small sticks. They all wanted to grow up and be the harpoon guy.
    Anyway, I understand the concerns and conflicts you had. It sounds like a tough decision you faced, but you have to go w/ your gut. One morning while I was there, I saw the locals slaughtering what I thought was a dolphin on the beach. I had a bit of a sick feeling, but was relieved to discover it was a couple of pigs instead (which possibly says something about my own sliding moral standards 🙂

    Cheers
    Simon

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hi Simon,

      We thought about some of the things that you mentioned in your comment as well, for example hand harpooning vs. a machine harpoon. But one of the articles we had read discussed the fact that machine harpoons are not really the problem. The real problem is the use of motorized boats to pursue the whales. Obviously, hand harpooning a whale is not an easy feat, but the task of keeping up with whales by hand paddling is what kept whaling sustainable in earlier times. Motors enable the hunters to pursue the whales over long distances and to hunt further out at sea. I think it’s something many people don’t want to discuss, but in reality native groups must either chose a traditional lifestyle or a modern one. If you want to continue hunting, you can’t use modern weapons or hunting methods and still claim that you are a “traditional hunter”. If you use modern equipment, you need to comply with environmental regulations like everyone else. If you hunt using traditional methods and hunting practices are sustainable, then it might be worth making exceptions for traditional people.

      Millions of Americans (and other nationalities for that matter) can easily claim that their grandparents or great grandparents once hunted for food. These people cannot continue their “traditional” hunting practices unchecked because it would simply wipe out the wildlife. All the same, it’s a tough topic.

  5. avatar sayaka says:

    hai there .. i am Indonesian but i disagree with this tradition Hunting Whale n dolphin . Hunting Whale and Dolphin is bad tradition…. animal have a right to life!

  6. avatar W. Evans says:

    You people dont have a clue as to how many people in the world dont have it no way near as easy as you do to live there arebillion who live in complete poverty these people are doing what they have to do to survive, do you have to same sympathyfor the cows chickens and fish and pigs that are killed for you to eat get real.

    • avatar Tony says:

      Thanks for leaving your comment.

      The people of Lamalera live in a region with tremendous resources compared to other parts of the world. They have systematically destroyed the reef systems around their island and are having an impact on migrating species as well. Indonesia has more than 18000 islands and only Lamalera and one other nearby village hunt whales.

      There are many people in more dire circumstances in Indonesia than the whale hunters of Lamalera. Most of the people on the same island find the whale hunting an unusual cultural tendency. But those arguments aside, as whale hunting increases, they will either kill off the species following this particular migration route or force the animals to reroute. Anecdotal evidence from the people of Lamalera themselves suggests that this is already happening. Either way, they will have to alter their behavior. Motorized boats and firearms have thrown off any balance that might have existed in the past.

      And one final note, we have spent years in the developing world in Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Pacific. There are very few people on this planet who have AS GOOD an idea of what people do to survive. We also have witnessed over and over how in almost every case environmental degradation contributes to and worsens that poverty.

  7. avatar Joe says:

    Tony-

    I, like most commentors on this post, am a nature lover, and I can appreciate your compassion for these magnificent creatures. I am a biology major as well. However, it seems that you do not truly understand the difference between sustainable and unsustainable hunting. Like natural predation in balanced ecosystems, sustainable hunting (such as that of the Lamalera people) can continue indefinitely without causing wild populations to collapse. This type of whaling is completely different from what has occurred in the past 100 years in terms of commercial whaling, which was done by DEVELOPED countries and was responsible for decimating whale populations worldwide. Commercial whaling is the reason that “save the whales” is even a thing, and it is why the modern layperson cringes at the word “whaling”. It is unfair for you to denounce the Lamaleran peoples’ tradition (which they have been doing for thousands of years mind you, and have never caused the extinction of a species) and call it a threat to the environment. Saying that they “don’t have real comprehension of what they’re doing” is ridiculous because they aren’t doing anything wrong. Do they not have the right to their culture just as we have a right to ours? If you’re looking to point the finger at someone for environmental damage, I suggest you read up on greenhouse gases, mining, ocean acidification, etc. You’ll be surprised to find out which countries are quickly turning the Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Regardless, I would appreciate it if you would not attack minority groups’ cultures because their practices do not agree with our more dominant societies’ social practices, especially when they involve biological processes and ecosystem dynamics that you are not educated on.

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hi Joe,

      I am not only a nature lover, but also a great supporter of native people all over the world. I also do very much understand the differences between commercial and traditional hunting methods as well as the distinction between sustainable and unsustainable hunting practices.

      From afar, I think there is ongoing debate as to whether the Lamalera are practicing sustainable whaling/fishing practices as most scientists tend to think of this as a tribe which hunts for its own consumption. On the ground the situation offers many disturbing indications of trends that are not sustainable. The most troubling trend is Indonesia’s promoting the Lamalera whale hunters as a tourist attraction. The whale hunters are now hunting whales, dolphins, sunfish etc. for the entertainment of tourists rather than for food. That practice is anything but sustainable. Locals also describe the decline in whales and dolphins in the channel as well as the trend that whale hunters must travel further and further to find whales.

      It’s important to remember traditional hunters didn’t have outboard motors.

  8. avatar Orang Ataili says:

    You have to go to Lamalera like Tony. He watched how they survive by selling whale meat. This is the heritage of ancestral tradition since thousands of years ago. Capturing the Whale is a blessing even though it is bad for an environmentalist. FAO, the UN agency providing ships and weapons to Lamalera to catch whales in a modern but it’s not the best thing for them. Lamalera people interested in the traditional way. It is their way of life is not to attract the tourists.

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