Monday, 19 September 2011

Moby Dork and his excellent whaling misadventures

MOBY STICK: POLE-VAULTING IS FOR WIMPS
Photo: Palani Mohan
Sometimes you get to live out your dreams. I adore this kind of story, a no-commissions take-no-prisoners risk-fest, setting off for some far flung corner of the world where weird people still do strange stuff. Moby Dick has long been one of my favourite books. I love Melville's dense and compelling prose, his flights of fancy (see The Whiteness of the Whale) and his general storytelling genius. So it was absolutely mind-blowing to find myself in a flimsy craft with some very rugged chaps paddling after a large and increasingly irate sperm whale just like they did in Melville's day. The whole enterprise was so very nearly a bust. Photographer Palani Mohan and I had been languishing in the little village known as Lamalera for nigh on a month without the sight of a single sperm whale and were about to call it quits when on our last full day on the island of Lembata, I ventured out with one of the whaling crews mainly out of sheer boredom. As you will see with what follows, the boredom didn't last long. Of course the demise of the great fish was heartbreaking, but for the villagers, among the last on the planet to practise true subsistence whaling, it was just another day at the office. Here's the story. And some awe-inspiring images.



When the first spouts were seen and we bent our backs to the oars, I began to wish I'd left Moby Dick undisturbed in my bookcase. For we were paddling out to do battle with leviathan, armed with needles and pins, in a boat made of matchsticks, and my mind was awash with the nameless terrors of Herman Melville's white whale.

"Hiva! Hiva!'' shouted the crew, calling on their ancestors, asking that courage not fail them. Each stroke brought us closer to our prey - an 11-metre, 20-tonne bull sperm whale churning lazy circles in the warm blue sea, proclaiming his presence with each misty roar of his spout.

Half an hour earlier, the unforgiving equatorial sun just past its zenith, the Tena Puka had been creeping back towards the Indonesian village of Lamalera, on the far eastern island of Lembata, where for more than three centuries men have gone down to the sea in wooden boats to hunt whales. The barest hint of a breeze luffed the woven palm-frond sail. Men dozed in a palm-wine torpor. "No whale today,'' said the captain, Sipri Demon, half-asleep at the tiller.

Two other boats, known as pelendangs, had been out with the Tena Puka, describing fruitless tacks across the Savu Sea since sun-up. Not a single spout had been descried since early April, more than six weeks ago, when a smallish sperm whale calf was caught. Meat was running low, and a palpable despondency was beginning to settle over the hunters and their families.

 "Clan trouble,'' Captain Demon explained that morning, shaking his head, as we pushed the boat down the glittering black beach and out through the breakers. Lamalerans believe any disharmony in the village will keep the whales away. The night before, in a noisy public meeting, a simmering feud over the division of meat from the last catch had finally been put to rest.

I settle into a sweaty trance, the Tena Puka pushing half-heartedly against indolent waves. We're half an hour or more behind the other pelendangs, who have almost gained the shore, when we hear the first shout.
MOBY TAIL: I AM JUST OUT OF FRAME,
REDECORATING MY BOXER SHORTS
Photo: Palani Mohan 
"Baleo! Baleo!'' There she blows! One of the youths who keep vigil on the hilltop has seen the telltale puffs of a sperm whale spout and raises the cry.

We scramble for the oars. Captain Demon is dancing a little jig as he swings the prow seaward. He grabs my shoulder and gives me a shake. "Paus!  Paus!'' he hisses, eyes suddenly full of blood and thunder. It means "Pope fish'' in Bahasa Indonesia. (It is taboo for the hunters to speak the whale's "real'' name - "kotakelema'' in their native tongue, Lamaholot - while at sea.)

"Hiva! Hiva!'' we chant, blistering our palms as we pull. Elias the harpooner is unhurriedly honing his barb on a whetstone. "Wocka wocka'' sings the steel as a gleaming edge replaces dull rust.

Each minute seems to stretch out interminably as we cut a foaming wake towards the whale. Suddenly the wet blasts sound close now, very close, and I put my oar down for a moment and turn to face the front of the boat just as the whale - not five metres in front of us - flings its flukes skyward and disappears into the depths. The tail is at least three metres across, terrifying and beautiful, sprung with an ineffable tendinous strength.

For five minutes, maybe more, there's calm. Then, off my side of the boat, a roiling disturbance and a rising black shadow, and the beast's huge block of a head bursts from the blue like a submarine that's just blown its tanks, covering us in acrid spray with a bellowing snort from its spiracle.

Curious, or befuddled, it floats there, spouting and eyeing us. It could easily outrun the boat but doesn't, and Captain Demon leans on the tiller as we row furiously. Elias fits the harpoon into its bamboo shaft, and with unerring balance dances onto his platform; thick bamboo sticks lashed to the Tena Puka's prow. Slowly the whale starts to swim, undulating its flukes. Elias crouches, his dart cocked.

At last the whale senses something amiss, and starts to churn the water into white curd. It lists like a stricken ship, giving Elias what he's been waiting for - a clean shot at the vulnerable spot behind its flipper. Noiselessly he leaps: burying his barb into blubber, flailing as he slides off the broad black back.

MOBY BLOWS: THE 'WHALE STONE' 
AND HUNTERS' LOOKOUT
 In a chaos of foam the whale begins its panicked run, and the rope jerks tight, quivering and humming with a wild electricity. Elias scrambles back into the boat as we take off on what Yankee whalers called the "Nantucket sleigh ride''.  In front of me, Franciscus, one of the "matros'', or crew, loops the line around a timber post to increase the drag and stop it whipping about. The rope is a constant threat; when the whale sounds it can cut through flesh like butter, or drag a careless hunter down to a watery grave.

Minutes of this, being pulled about like a toy, then the whale slows. Gathers its strength. Regards us with a baleful eye. It hoists its flukes into the air and smashes them down two metres from where I'm sitting. There's a blast like a thunderclap. Dion, another matros, shoves my head none too gently below the gunwhales, shouting “down, down!’’.

My ears are ringing and I feel like my bowels are about to fail me. "Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it,'' wrote Melville of the sperm whale's tail. "No ribs of man or boat can withstand it.'' The whale wields its flukes like a gladiator's mace again, further away this time. Spray flies. Then he sounds, and rises under the boat, knocking us off our perches with a great thump. The timbers quiver and groan. "Santa Domingo,'' cry the crew and I'm jabbering away in tongues, summoning half-remembered prayers from strange cobwebby places.

Elias, fearless, leaps upon the beast again, embedding another harpoon. The whale rolls and roils, tangling the ropes around its thick torso. The two other pelendangs, Java Tena and Demo Sapan, are scudding toward us, sails flapping, oars flying. Both manage to get harpoons fast to the whale, then back off, swiftly paying out rope, leaving us to face the brunt of the whale's mounting fury. 

IT is hard to imagine a more apt setting to hunt sea monsters than Lamalera. The village, about 900km east of Bali, oozes portents; beyond the steep green hill that divides the twin communities of Lamalera A and B rear volcanic peaks, including the active, smoke-belching Ale Ile. On clear mornings you can see across the Ombai Strait, a sperm whale breeding ground, to Timor.

The beach is dotted with bleached whale bones, and the restless earth leaks a sulphurous stink, lending credence to the fire and brimstone sermons each Sunday (the Catholic mission has been established for more than a century and most of Lamalera’s 2000 inhabitants are Christians). A strong streak of animism survives, however. On April 30, the day before the official six-month hunting season begins, elders plod up the mountain to the whale stone, a panoptic perch that resembles a sperm whale, and offerings are made to the whale god.

Only toothed whales, such as sperm and pilot whales (as well as manta rays and dolphins), are hunted by the Lamalerans. Plankton-eating behemoths like the blue whale, regularly sighted in the Savu sea, are sacred - the islanders believe their ancestors arrived on the back of one. Lamalera is the last place on earth where sperm whales are regularly harpooned from traditional wooden vessels – and after May’s acrimonious International Whaling Commission meeting, it may for some time be the only place in the world where subsistence whaling of any kind occurs.

In a move spearheaded by an angry Japanese contingent smarting after losing their battle to have the ban on commercial whaling lifted, subsistence whaling by native american and aboriginal tribes in the United States and Russia was banned. The tribes, included Eskimos and the Chukotka people, hunt the more docile plankton-eating bowhead and grey whales.

MOBY DOCKED: LET THE STENCH BEGIN
Photo: Palani Mohan
The Indonesian government tolerates the hunt on Lamalera, viewing it as true subsistence whaling (in any case, Indonesia is not a signatory to the IWC). In a good year, 20 or 30 whales may be caught; in a bad year, none. The meat is eaten and bartered with hilltribes for grains, fruit and vegetables, while the oil – both the valuable “spermaceti’’ from the head and the lesser stuff the drips from strips of blubber - is used to fuel lamps.

Like the Quakers who dominated the Yankee sperm whale fishery in the latter part of the 19th century, Lamalera's whale hunters believe God is on their side.  "Faith is very important,'' says Papa Ignatzius, 48, master boatbuilder and the grizzled harpooner of the Demo Sapan. His beachside house bears testimony to successful hunts; huge vertebrae form fretwork above the doors and the bleached arches of ribs decorate flowerbeds.

"When you're about to jump onto a whale, you aren't thinking about your wife or your kids or whether you remembered to kick the dog that morning,'' he says. "You are praying to God with all your might to guide your harpoon.'' No small measure of faith is invested in the pelendangs, which take a beating during the hunt. Crafted by hand from a local timber similar to teak, the boats are held together by an elaborate system of wooden dowels and pegs. They measure about 10 metres in length, weigh around a tonne and carry a crew of eight to 12. Twenty-five of the craft sit under thatched huts on the beach, but fewer than half of them have active crews. Lamalerans believe their pelendangs, named after ancestors, are invested with an immortal soul. Eyes are painted on the front so the boat can see. 

"If I make a mistake of even one millimeter when building a boat ... disaster,'' says Papa Ignatzius. "We call the sperm whale the "doctor fish'', because he is so smart. If there is a mistake in the boat, a weakness, then the whale will strike it in exactly that place.''

None of the villagers know just how long ago their ancestors arrived at Lamalera, or when they first summoned the nerve to harpoon a whale. But a Portuguese document dated 1624 describes the hunt in some detail. If accurate, it means the Lamalerans had the business down to a fine art two centuries before Melville conceived Ahab and his monomaniacal quest.

How much longer the hunt will continue is open to conjecture. While the elders say that as long as there are Lamalerans, they will hunt whales, you can't help noticing many of the pelendang crews are a bit long in the tooth. The younger generation have largely opted for less risky occupations.

MOBY WHO? A WHALE HUNTER OF LAMALERA
Photo: Palani Mohan 
"I don’t know what the future holds for us,'' says Noel Beding, 24, a computer studies graduate from a Bali college who now helps run his father's homestay in Lamalera B. "We want to keep our traditions alive, but maybe in the future we can make our living from tourism. I don't want my kids to have to hunt whales. I want them to have electricity and television and a good education, to see the world.’’

His father, Abel Beding, hunted whales as a youth. "I'm too old for that now,’’ he says. “It’s a hard living. You’re either sitting in the boat bored stiff or worrying you’re about to die.'' These days he makes a living renting rooms to the trickle of tourists who make their way to Lamalera. “Things are changing here,’’ he says. “Lamalera is waking up to the modern world.” A couple of years ago, he bought a generator and a television. Children gather in front of his house each night to gape at Sylvester Stallone movies.

Clouds are gathering on Lamalera's horizon. Lembata Island, until last year part of Flores district, has now been made a separate district, which means more funds from Jakarta. Local officials are keen to exploit the tourism potential of the whale hunters, and have begun construction of a new road that would cut dramatically the travelling time from the main port of Lewoleba - currently a five-hour, bone-jarring vertiginous odyssey in an ancient Land Rover.

The barter economy has been disrupted by the modern world’s intrusion. Tourists are welcome to go on a whale hunt, provided they pay. "I think people got a bit greedy after a Japanese documentary crew was here four or five years ago,'' says Abel Beding. "They splashed lots of money around.''

A day out on a pelendang is 35,000 rupiah. If a whale is caught and you want to take photographs, the fee is 150,000 rupiah, or 700,000 for video. You can make your own sacrifice at the whale stone, but it will cost you 500,000 rupiah. The charges seem fair, considering the uniqueness of Lamalera and the very real risks whaling poses to life and limb. But if the hunt becomes a  gory tourist bloodsport rather than true subsistence whaling, public opinion - generally sympathetic - may turn against the whale hunters.  
  
MOBY DEAD: HUNTERS
AND THEIR PRIZE
Photo: Palani Mohan
The sperm whale, also known as Physeter macrocephalus, or the cachalot, is the grand prize for Lamalerans. The meat from a big bull can sustain the village for months. Adult males can reach lengths of more than 20 metres long and weigh 50 tonnes. Females rarely exceed 13 metres.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal in earth's history - six times the size of a human brain – and a penis as long as the average NBA player is tall. They are covered in a tough layer of blubber up to a foot thick, and their four-chambered heart weighs as much as two grown men.

Their main source of food is the giant squid, which lives in deep ocean trenches. Sperm whales can dive to depths of three kilometres, staying under water for up to two hours. They have the largest head of any animal, up to six metres long and three metres high. The top half contains a case filled with spermaceti, a fragrant oil prized by the Yankee whalers for its clean-burning qualities and use as a lubricant. Below the case is a waxlike honeycomb structure believed to be used in echolocation, pinpointing food in the inky depths, and regulating buoyancy. Ambergris, an ash-coloured, sweet-scented substance found in lumps in the sperm whale's intestines, is still prized as a fixative for perfumes.

A full-grown bull's lower jaw may reach five metres, studded with more than 50 curved teeth up to 15cm long, which fit into holes in the upper jaw when the mouth is closed. Sperm whales are generally social animals. Pods consist of females and calves, and "bachelor schools'' of young males. Older bulls are solitary, but will engage in fierce battles with rivals for the right to mate (this is accomplished by swimming upside down under the female). They can live as long as 70 years, and since the ban on commercial whaling in the 1970s, a population which some scientists believe dipped as low as 200,000 worldwide, is beginning to recover.

Melville, who went whaling for several years, found inspiration for his classic novel Moby Dick in the true story of the whaleship Essex, which was charged head on and sunk by an enormous, enraged bull sperm whale in 1820.
   
MOBY GONE:
FAREWELL TO LEVIATHAN
Photo: Palani Mohan 
WHALING is without doubt a risky business - just ask Benedictus Demon. Like a modern-day Ahab, he hobbles about on one leg, the other a wooden stump. A matros on the pelendang Kebakopuka, the 52-year-old recalls a huge pod of whales being spotted one June morning in 1996.

 "Two other boats had already harpooned whales, and about 8am we fastened onto a big one, about 13 metres. I was the harpooner's assistant, so my job was to pay out the rope and make sure it didn't get twisted. Well, the whale was putting up a hell of a fight, and I didn't notice the rope had become looped around my leg, below the knee. When the whale dived, the rope cut right through my leg, even the bone. It took six hours to get to the hospital. I thought I was a dead man.’’

Three years earlier, the boat was dragged more than 80km, almost to Timor, by a massive bull. “After a day and a night, we decided to cut the rope,’’ he says. “We drifted for three days, with no food and hardly any water. We were all nearly dead when a cruise liner picked us up near Komodo.''

Marcelinus Ratu, a 28-year-old matros on Demo Sapan, could be forgiven for hating whales, for making revenge his quest. When Marcelinus was still in his mother's belly, his father was smitten by a whale and died instantly. But there are no hard feelings, he says. "It’s just a job. I’m not out for revenge. Actually, I like and respect whales, but we need to feed our families.’’

Cowering in the Tena Puka as the flukes fly, I can’t help pondering his father’s fate. The whale wheels around, using the featureless expanse of its head as a battering ram. “Santa  Domingo,'' cry the crew, baling furiously as water seeps through the straining timbers. Between flurries, the crew haul on the rope, getting us up alongside the whale, then they lean out with sharp knives and furiously stab into the blubber, trying to get at the vital organs. One of the crew manages to stick a gaffer hook deep into the whale's spiracle, prompting a savage burst of tail-swatting. Knife clenched between his teeth, Franciscus swims out to the raging fish and opens up a cut behind its hump. Fresh gouts of blood stain the sea.

He dog-paddles back to the boat, just as the whale coils and unleashes the full power of its tail, snapping off the harpooner's platform and staving the inch-thick planks of the prow like so much balsa wood. The hole is just above the waterline, but the boat has been fatally weakened. Rope is paid out until we are at a safe distance from the whale, and the Demo Sapan charges in to take up the fight. “Scared?’’ laughs Franciscus, as he dives overboard and strokes off to continue the fray.

Scared scarcely begins to cover it. After nearly an hour in a half-flooded boat being battered by a big angry fish, complete and abject terror would be a more accurate summation of my mental state. The crew are laughing at me and making loud spouting sounds. Franciscus has somehow straddled the back of the whale and works his knife up and down, effectively hobbling the deadly flukes. Each time it tries to hoist its tail, the gash gapes wider, bleeding crimson. “Baleo!’’ someone shouts, as more spouts are spied. Half a kilometre away, five or six sperm whales have stopped to investigate the commotion. They lift their heads out of the water, swinging them from side to side. They circle us, stop, and swim slowly away.

It takes three more hours until the great fish expires, jaw horribly agape, spouting clots of gore in its final agonised writhings. At last its island bulk lies still; the pool of blood thinning, mingling with the pinks and oranges of sunset.

MOBY BONE: LAST
 OF THE WHALE HUNTERS?
Photo: Palani Mohan
It's almost dark by the time the corpse is towed back some 5km to shore, hauled into the shallows and secured with ropes. The entire populace seems to be on the beach, hopping and babbling beneath flaming torches. In the fading light, a massive blue whale is sighted, cruising just 20m offshore, spouting its towering spout. A good omen, the villagers agree.

At sunrise, butchering will begin. Great chunks of rich meat will be divided up, according to strict and ancient formulae. Spermaceti will be ladled into buckets. Women will pad about, squares of blubber balanced on their heads, dripping oil down their backs. By midday, a sickening, pore-deep stench will have settled like a blanket over Lamalera.

But tonight belongs to the whale hunters of tomorrow: they howl and cavort on the beach, terrible naked imps bathed in blood and torchlight, leaping from beached boats to hurl slivers of bamboo at imaginary monsters.
















   
 

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