At 7 a.m. the waves were still pummeling the rocks. Hieronymus glumly passed on the news: No hunt today. The sky was slung low and stormy over the village as we prepared for another day aground. Down on the beach, the spotters sat idling, smoking cigarettes rolled in palm leaves and gazing out to sea like they were waiting for a bus. Something bus-sized, at least.
In Lemalera, everything faces the sea. All paths end up on that black sand strewn with rocks and bones and lined with thatched huts, long and narrow, each revealing the pointed bow of a canoe poking out at the water like an audience of sea turtles.
Hieronymus found me drifting through the village after breakfast.
“It’s very strange,” he mused.
“When you smell the blood of a whale, it smells like human blood. That’s why I have never tried it, because of the smell.”
Hieronymus—Hero for short—had gray eyes, Timor features, and a cropped military moustache. Around forty-years-old, educated and unmarried, he was a self-employed travel guide. Hero had a troubled air and spoke decent English in a sullen monotone. He was superstitious, always twirling his ivory bracelet and fingering the orca’s tooth he carried in his pocket.
We stopped beside the yard of a shack, where bamboo racks in neat lines were hung with drying, reeking flesh. Shark, manta ray, dolphin, whale shark, turtle, tuna, marlin. Hieronymus pointed to something that looked like a meter-long slice of yellowish-black eggplant. Whale meat. Beneath it, baskets were collecting the viscous oil that dripped down and solidified in the sun.
I had met Hero four days earlier in the port town of Maumere, the last settlement of any note on the swish of volcanic islands that comprised East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia. Bali was a fading memory 500 miles to the west. Java much further still.
As I waited for my pack at the airport’s luggage carrousel, Hero mumbled a sales pitch. He described an island where men hunted whales with bamboo harpoons and spindly canoes. He would take me to this lost world via land and water as he had taken other travelers and journalists, help me interview the whalers (he spoke their dialect), and, best of all, facilitate a hunt with them. It felt like being offered the chance to go to Skull Island in search of King Kong, but these creatures were real, and I’d get a story out of it. I was never going to say no.
Hero, looking out of a jeep as we crossed Lembata Island to Lemalera. Photo: Tom O’Malley
The journey to Lemalera took two long days, traversing islands forested in palm trees, then riding ferries that joined the dots between land and shore.
“If they see a whale when you are on the boat, you better know—they will try to kill it,” Hero warned grimly as we sat on an overloaded tub that chugged between jade volcanoes. “They do not care that you are there, even if it takes many hours. Or days.”
Hero had a talent for doom-mongering, which, given the nature of his travel guiding, meant he could exercise it a lot. After the third day aground in Lemalera, I asked Hero if he thought we’d ever get to join a hunt.
“Don’t know. It depends.”
“On the weather,” I pre-empted.
“And on you, maybe.”
“Maybe you do something bad. Have something bad in your heart. You need to prepare yourself. Here in the village, if they don’t trust you, and something happens in the middle of the sea, you’ve got big problems.”
As I waited for the hunt I explored every inch of Lemalera. The village sits on the southern shore of Lembata Island, choked by steep mountains and impossible to farm. But it does have one unique resource—the Sawu Sea. Lemalera looks out on to this ominous gray juncture of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where trenches a mile deep teem with giants. Fourteen species of whale migrate past the island on powerful currents, including the mightiest of all, the blue whale. Sharks, rays, and smaller cetaceans, such as dolphins, come here to feed; sea turtles ride the currents beneath.
The villagers help haul a Lemalera canoe up the beach. Photo: Tom O’Malley
For generations, family clans have hunted on the Sawu Sea in wooden canoes with bamboo harpoons and woven palm sails. The creatures they kill are eaten, and sometimes the meat is bartered with villages inland for fruits, grains, and other goods. Occasionally, when the people of Lemalera need to raise cash, Hero told me, whale meat is hauled overland to Lewoleba, the only town on the island, and sold there. Another more recent source of income was tourism. I wasn’t the first to come here looking to catch a ride on a whaling boat and, if the weather ever let up, I’d be paying for the privilege—about $10.
On our third evening in Lemalera, Hero took me to meet Ignaceus, a retired whaler. Bony and wide-eyed with scrubby hair the colour of sharkskin, he was an aging sage of the sea and had killed his first whale more than 40 years earlier.
“I was scared,” Ignaceus told me. “I had to jump into the water otherwise the whale would swim away. I had to jump. All the crew urged me to jump. So I jumped.”
I thought “jump” was a mistranslation, but Hero explained: The harpoon isn’t thrown, exactly; the hunter launches his whole body, while clutching the harpoon, into the water, bringing the sharp end down upon his target—under the fin if it’s a sperm whale—using all his weight and momentum. The risks are considerable. The harpoonist must avoid the thrashing tail and the boat’s keel, motor blades, and ropes.
“I was hurt once,” Ignaceus said, exhaling cigarette smoke. “The rope caught around my leg, but luckily I had only speared a manta ray. A whale would have taken me for certain. God didn’t want me to die that day.”
As the sun dipped below the palms, the ever-present reek of spoiling flesh was masked by the gentler scents of a tropical evening. We strolled across the village to the house of Ignaceus’ son, Joseph.
About 40, Joseph had a dark-eyed, Clint Eastwood swagger about him. Wearing just a pair of shorts, he was built like a gymnast, knotted and lean. He invited Hero and me to sit on stools fashioned from whale vertebrae. Colossal bones were piled up in man-sized stacks. His wife served us syrupy palm wine in plastic bottles.
Joseph had harpooned whales since he was 16. He’d killed over a hundred. Sperm whales, mostly.
“Do you worry about getting hurt, or killed?” I asked.
“Feelings are very important when you want to catch the whale. If you are frightened, you will lose it. When I’m out on the boat, all I’m thinking about is what I can catch and bring back to the village and to my family. I’m always concentrating on the sea—whale, manta, dolphin, it doesn’t matter what. I must bring something back.”