Indonesian whale hunters’ subsistence lifestyle documented by Australian photojournalist Paul Jones

When photojournalist Paul Jones first travelled to a little-known island in Eastern Indonesia to document locals’ subsistence lifestyle and, in particular, their practice of harpooning whales from small boats, he was initially after the mythical perfect photo.

“At times I am within grasp of the perfect image, only to see it [a whale] dive to the depths of the Savu Sea,” Mr Jones said.

Readers are advised this story contains images that some readers might find distressing.

Over multiple trips to the village of Lamalera on the island of Lembata, lasting more than a month each time, he came to look beyond the photo to appreciate the rare opportunity to interact closely with a unique culture.

The self-set assignment still carried many logistical and ethical challenges; it was certainly no holiday.

“You fly into Bali, Denpasar, then you catch a small plane to Flores, and then it’s a journey of small buses, motorbikes, ferries, and motorbikes again,” said Mr Jones, a former international news photographer, from Wollongong in New South Wales.

“In all it takes you about four days to get to this island.”

And once you get there life is fairly basic.

“There is no electricity, there is no running water, the staple diet usually consists of rice and dried whale meat. There are no hotels, there’s no alcohol,” Mr Jones said.

While he developed a nuanced appreciation of the people and their cultural practices, Mr Jones said that did not mean he endorsed their killing of whales, dolphins and manta rays.

“Although the subject of whaling is so controversial and it can be somewhat horrific to watch, these people were such happy people and very accommodating of people like myself, Westerners, making the effort to go and see what they do and what their culture is about,” he said.

“Subsistence whaling is the main economy around the village, so everyone would have something to do with it.”

It’s a male-oriented culture, with the men building the boats and fishing equipment by hand, while the women generally are involved with cooking and maintaining the home.

At the top of the fishing pecking order is the harpooner, or lamafa.

“He is looked at as being the pin-up boy of the village,” Mr Jones said.

“The young kids will aspire to becoming lamafas.

“I was anti-whaling, as I guess most Westerners or Australians are.

“There was something I always felt when you see these beautiful massive beasts, whether it’s whales, dolphins or manta rays, which are all these hunted creatures by the Indonesians in Lamalera, … you go, ‘Oh my God, is this right or is this wrong?’

“But I did come to that realisation as a journalist. I was looking at it objectively and this is their life and can I really say what is right and wrong for them?”

Inherent danger

What Mr Jones also couldn’t shy away from was the inherent dangers involved, as all too often the practice led to injury or even death for the fishermen.

“These boats do get damaged by whales,” he said.

“Whales, their main defence is the flukes, so the tail of the whale.

“Sperm whales in particular are quite aggressive. They will try to smash the boat or the harpoon ropes with their flukes.

“It is not uncommon to see boats that have half sunk, or are broken, and it’s not uncommon to hear of stories where people have died, people are injured, all because of catching whales.”

At the end of the day, what is caught is shared among the more than 1,000 residents of the village, or traded.

“Depending on how big the whale is, it could last for a week, it could last for a month, and also the whale meat that is dried out is used for barter,” Mr Jones said.

“They will barter with other people from different islands for rice, for vegetables. It’s a real way of life.”

The village has a quota of 12 whales a year set by the International Whaling Commission, which distinguishes between Aboriginal subsistence and commercial whaling, and assesses what is a sustainable hunt based on the animals’ abundance and population.

Sadly and without clear explanation, it appeared the whales were becoming scarcer, Mr Jones observed.

“When I recently went back they said they hadn’t seen a whale in over a year,” he said.

Whether this proves to be a trend that threatens their subsistence lifestyle is yet to be determined.

Mr Jones, who recently completed a master’s degree on Indonesian whale hunters, and plans to follow up with a PhD on subsistence whaling around the world, will launch a book of his prints and an exhibition of his photos at The Wollongong Gallery in February.

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