August 21, 2009 1 Comment
We just got back from our trip to Lamalera on Lembata Island Indonesia. Lamalera is known as one of the last villages in the world where the local people catch sperm whales. Before we left our information was that the whaling is not only a life support, but a strong part of their culture and done with traditional paddle boats. We went to see for ourselves and with the mission to find out if dive tourism could help in creating an alternative income source.
Lamalera is most easily reached from the port of Larantuka on Flores. A fast ferry takes you to Lewoleba on Lembata Island in two hours and from there it is a bumpy three hours by bus. Not comfy, but even Dave’s five year old daughter Puck that came along for the journey didn’t complain so I guess it is quite doable for even the spoiled traveler.
Upon arrival in Lamalera you are welcomed by a many kids that by now are used to seeing tourists (on average there are 5 to 10 tourists in Lamalera on any given day) and for them they are a welcome source for balloons, toys, candy and other treats. We are treated on rice and dried fish of unknown origin ourselves. Not keen on the prospect of baked whale we prepare for a menu of rice and biscuits for the next days. If you are keen on good food, bring your own.
After a short stroll in Lamalera it is immediately clear that this village is all about fishing on big pelagics. People are walking around with cuts of whale, manta, shark and dolphin meat and everywhere you look whale bones are scattered around. They are even used as garden fences and building material. As true lovers of marine life, it breaks our heart to see large and even juvenile manta’s carried out of boats, thresher shark being cut in pieces and dolphin meat drying in the sun.
The next morning we embark on our mission. We would like to see if it is possible to see and even swim with sperm whales. We make it very clear to the crew that there will be no fishing today. In return we pay them 1 million rupiah. The equivalent of $ 100. A lot of money for them and more than enough to cover the loss of a day not fishing. They look at us with disbelief but with a big smile on their face. We find out that this is quite new to them. Most tourist only go out with them on the water when they are on the whale hunt. We feel like we have saved a whale.
We jump into the biggest boat, room enough for 10. As soon as we leave the bay we are surrounded by dolphins and everywhere we look we see tuna hunting and jumping in the air. This will be the scenery all day. In the distance we see a whale blowing and our heartbeat starts to increase.. what a spectacular place. We put our gear on and are ready to leave the boat. This process will repeat itself a couple of times that day but unfortunately we are not lucky in locating a whale. Keen on some action and in need of some refreshing water we decide to jump in the sea when the boat is surrounded with tuna and dolphins….a truly incredible experience.
Evenings are unique. The smell of firewood in the air, we roast cashew nuts, drink a beer, play games with the local children, a choir is practicing on the background and our guide translates our conversation with the local fishermen. We talk about fishing, about the future, football and their feelings towards killing the large fish. They feel neglected by the Government and NGO’s and see no other way to fulfill their need for food and development than catching large pelagics. Not because they want to keep their culture intact as so often is written about lamalera but merely because the next generation wants to get ahead. Better food, means of transport and good healthcare are on everyone’s list. The old fashioned paddle boats are still out there, but nowadays no boat leaves harbor without an outboard engine. More tourist would help a lot and everything is in place for some of the world’s best and authentic dolphin and whale watching. A much better option for everyone than using the quicker boats now available in Lamalera for other purposes.
Looking back we have to say that despite the disgust we felt when we saw all these beautiful animals dead on the beach, the people of Lamalera do what they can. They don’t catch more than they need, don’t sell fins or meat to the illegal shark and whale market and they waste nothing of the fish they catch. But still… we would rather (as in any other place) not see them doing it because there are other options.
This is where anyone reading this post plays a role. Lamalera will not become a diving destination anyday soon, but when you are keen to explore new and beautiful places and you care about marine life go to Lamalera. Rent a boat, enjoy the jaw dropping scenery and it will be one of the better days in your life, the day you personally saved a whale or other beautiful marine species. You might get lucky and besides the hundreds of dolphins also spot one of the blue whales that migrate along Lamalera’s waters. Enjoy the hospitality of the Lamalera people and experience this truly unique place.
If you are into diving as well… a trip combination with Alor Island (we flew from Maumere to Kupang and then to Alor) will blow you away. Unspoilt reefs, huge amounts of fish and ribbon eel, ghost pipe fish, mandarin fish, frogfish, turtles etc. in one dive was not an exception. visit http://www.la-petite-kepa.com/diving.html for more info.. they have some basic but very moodful accomodations.