Project Sperm

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October 7th 2010
Published: October 7th 2010
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Project Sperm

Project Sperm

Eric and I went down to the harbor in Larantuka for the 8 o'clock ferry to embark on what in my head had been called "Project Sperm" for quite a while. I think it was in Yogyakarta that one of us had been leafing through Lonely Planet and had stumbled on our destination and said "We have to go there". That we were now finally on our way there felt absolutely fantastic.

The ferry was of the kind you picture yourself when you from time to time hear about an Indonesian ferry sinking. Wooden, old and poorly maintained and people everywhere. As we sat down (yup, we actually found some available seats) I started to realize how far away from home we were. No other whities around. No-one spoke more than a few words of English.

It took some four hours before we arrived in Lewoleba on the island of Lembata and we went more or less straight to the "bus" terminal. We knew that our best chance for getting to our destination was the truck convoy that heads down there every day around 1 o'clock. It was indeed a truck but fitted with two rows
We bridge the nationWe bridge the nationWe bridge the nation

She managed at least one more trip but her days are numbered. We did arrive safely in Lewoleba on Lembata.
of seats and bags of cement and other cargo filling up the floor. It did however comfort us that it was only half-full since the road leading south from Lewoleba is often called "the worst road in the world" by the people who have already made the trip.

We are on the road to nowhere

It was a terrible road. Patches of tarmac mixed with potholes that were large enough to justify naming them caused us to bump in directions I didn't even know existed. The rugged truck climbed up from the coast and the views of Lembata soothed us a bit but of course the bastards had installed a giant speaker in the back. Despite of this some of the locals actually managed to sleep a bit and my admiration grew even more.

As I described in the last entry transportation in Indonesia gets less comfortable the closer you get to your destination. On this journey it had a twist. About halfway a group of men got on and shortly after we headed down a side-road. A side-road to an already really shitty road meant a barely passable track into the jungle but we tumbled in
Truck ConvoyTruck ConvoyTruck Convoy

10-4 rubber duck. These wonderful vehicles took us south from Lewoleba.
there for quite a while. No-one was able to tell us what the hell was going on, but as we passed more men in the forest it slowly dawned on us. Eventually we stopped and everybody started re-arranging the cargo to fit the giant planks of wood that these guys had been making in the forest. Going this far for wood could really only mean one thing and one of the latest passengers confirmed that this timber was indeed going to become a boat in the town we were travelling to. So there we were. Sitting with our feet on what was closely tied with Project Sperm and I could feel the anticipation climb to new heights.

We went for another two hours or so. Eventually Eric climbed up on the roof and I joined him after a while and it proved quite a bit more comfortable and a lot more fun. The other passengers laughed quite a bit which was a welcome change from the dead-silence and condemning stares I had caused when asked whether I was "catholic, protestant, muslim, hindu?" and simply answered "No".

Far, far away

It was dusk as we pulled into Lamalera.
Jungle stopJungle stopJungle stop

Here we have stopped in the middle of nowhere to lead a lot of lumber on the trucks. And not just any kind of lumber.
Situated on the southern coast of Lembata it is a sleepy little town with only a few guesthouses and according to LP the entire island only sees about 300 tourists a year. We went down to the beach/harbor and strolled up a hill to see the "new" part of town and I immediately fell in love with the winding alleys and pleasant people. They are if not exactly smiling then at least somewhat friendly. There was a remarkable stench in quite a few places but that only meant that we were getting close to the conclusion of "Project Sperm". The houses were dark with people gathered out front chatting and drinking next to the proudly displayed white bones. We were definitely in Lamalera.

At the guesthouse there were three Malaysian fishers and a Polish couple and we talked about the weird attraction that this place has. Some aspects are downright repulsive but on the other hand Eric and I had been strangely drawn all the way there. We arranged for a boat in the morning and went to sleep.

Present and Tense

We walk down to the beach. My palms are a bit sweaty. I am not
Lamalera nightLamalera nightLamalera night

Sunset over the bay at Lamalera. One of the boats are heading back home for the night.
fully sure if I have fully understood or rather agreed with myself about what is about to happen. Of the many possible outcomes there are several that I know I will have some sort of qualms with. But as the boat is prepared I also know that there is no way that I am going to back out now. Eric has been voicing more concerns than me and I am just hoping that he will not give up either.

As the men gather the equipment the purpose and method of todays trip becomes obvious. These guys are not fishers and it is not an ordinary fishing boat that we are getting into. These guys are whalers.

The boat is about ten meters long and they mount the bamboo harpoons into a rack on the right side. On the end of the bamboo sticks they fit a metal hook with a rope attached to it and that is the weapon they use. Their primary prey are sperm whales but they also go for orcas, dolphins, sharks and turtles. Baleen whales are supposedly taboo but we heard that they once caught a blue whale. That is insane. The boats that they use
Lamalera MorningLamalera MorningLamalera Morning

Early morning on the beach at Lamalera. The boathouses line the beach ready for action.
for the bigger whales have outriggers but unlike the one that we are on they insist on not using motors on those boats.

That is why we are here. We want to see these people hunting whales with bamboo sticks in tiny wooden boats. And that is also why my palms are sweaty. What if we catch something and what would that be.

We head out and the tiny outboard motor pushes us out slowly towards open water. The hooks are sharpened and fastened to the harpoons, ropes are neatly arranged and they start looking for prey. There are six people on board apart from Eric and I. The oldest must be in his late fifties and the youngest is around ten. Their rugged serious faces are scanning the surface. We have only been sailing for about fifteen minutes when the two guys in the front signal with subtle hand movements and the engine revs up. It takes me quite a while but then I see the pack of dolphins we are heading for. At first it looks like they are way too fast for us but somehow the boat gets closer and closer. The harpooner readies himself
Lamalera cigaretteLamalera cigaretteLamalera cigarette

There is virtually no money in Lamalera. They barter what they catch for other necessities so cigarettes are homemade. They take a piece of bark and pull of a few fibers with their teeth. Then they roll some tobacco into the rest of the bark and use the fibers to tie around the whole thing. Small pieces of art.
and all of a sudden the dolphins are only a few meters away. But he never throws it. The dolphins turn away from the boat and are gone beneath the surface. When they hunt sperm whales the harpooner actually jumps onto the whale to thrust the harpoon in as far as possible.

A while later we chase another pack and come a bit closer but they also disappear under the water. It is not until the third pack that he actually throws a harpoon but barely misses and a big part of me is quite relieved. We are far away from the coast now but they head out a bit further until they cut the engine. They roll up their impressive homemade cigarettes and we just sit there looking for a long while. It is actually quite peaceful out here. Clear blue sky and a beautiful view back towards Lembata.

And then the motor starts up again and we head out even further. All of our eyes scan the surface, the horizon looking for anything out of the ordinary. And then for the first time they start shouting, pointing, the entire boat all of sudden poized at a
There it isThere it isThere it is

It can barely be seen, but there is no doubt.
big black shadow only meters in front of the stern. There is no doubt. I recognize it almost immediately. It is very, very large. That in itself narrows down the options but it is the white dots on its back that leaves just one possibility. I cry out to Eric:"It's a fucking whale shark!!".

Even before I started diving I have listened to divers longing for meeting a whale shark underwater. These are the biggest fish in the world and they cruise the oceans eating just plankton. Sometimes they even seem to enjoy the company of divers and display some sort of curiosity. And now we are about to kill one of these gentle giants.

There is no turning back. When you head out on a boat with these men, they set the agenda. You cannot go "Oh, could we try to kill a dolphin instead". The events will now unfold as they have for hundreds of years and I am just going to be a spectator.

The men of Lamalera call whale sharks "stupid fish". They don't try to run or dive when they hear the boat. They just swim along. The activity on the boat is frantic. A harpoon is handed to the harpooner standing on the stern. They maneuver the boat so that the shark is now on the port side. And then we slowly inch towards it. It's tail fin is out of the water as the harpooner lifts the bamboo stick as high as he can and then he thrusts it as fast as he can into the water.

Silence for about a second or so. I sense nothing. And then we feel the shark pulling on the rope. HARD. Everybody is shouting but even when I am absolutely convinced that we are about to capsize they seem to be organized and working as planned. Eric is told to pull on the rope together with the crew. I just snap photographs from the back of the boat. The second harpoon is thrust into the water and the shark slams its tail into the boat repeatedly. I realize how absurd it is that we are still floating. Every time we violently rock from side to side water is splashing in over the railing.

And then it tugs one last time and almost drags the port railing under water. The third harpoon is thrust into it and the men have managed to drag the shark all the way up to the boat. The harpooner grabs his enormous knife and throws his upper body over the side of the boat and starts stabbing it into the fish. After five or six or these the battle is over. The water is red and the shark is already dead. The men fasten ropes to the mouth of the shark and cut a hole through the dorsal fin to secure another rope. Only a minute or two has passed but I have quite frankly lost all sense of time.

And that is it. One whale shark less in the world. Erased. After firmly securing it we head back towards Lamalera. Dragging the shark on the side we are not moving very fast and it takes more than two hours to make it back.

As we get out of the boat and wade onto the beach the kids are already gathering, playing with the fish, almost taunting it. There is no doubt that this is a bigger catch than most. Some 6-7 meters it is however not really big for a whale shark. Paul, an Australian journalist who is in town to describe this unique way of living, is asking us for a quote, but realizes that we are "still in shock eh?"

The men drags the shark into shallow waters and start carving it up. The meat is beautiful. Pure white with intricate blood-red patterns. The tail is cut of first and then the rest is carved up. There are maybe 30-40 people on the beach, mostly kids. Within a few hours there is nothing left but the gills. Erased. Eric and I get our share of the catch and head back to the guesthouse.

Past and Tense

I still feel quite ambiguous about that experience. Firstly we realized afterwards that our boat was the only one out that day. If we had not paid for the petrol they would not have gone out. Normally they only go out if they spot whales and then a bell is rung and everybody scrambles to sea. Otherwise the petrol is too expensive. That was at least what Paul told us. In retrospect that doesn't make sense though since there were about twenty boats on the beach that are simply not used for big whales, so they do go out for smaller prey, tourists or no tourists.

But that doesn't change the fact that this particular whale shark would not have been killed on that day if it hadn't been for us. We thought that we would just go out on a boat that would have gone out anyway, but that was not the case.

It has helped a bit to see how the shark was used. Every single piece was used and it must have fed almost the entire village for days. In bad years when they don't catch very many whales they do in fact starve. It is the only source of income. This year has been decent with 13 sperm whales so far when we visited.

What fascinated me about the place and made me go there was that these people have chosen this existence and are damn proud about it. In the 80's the Norwegians tried to modernize the whaling in Lamalera but after less than half a year the locals decided to go back to their traditional methods. No engines, rather bamboo sticks and tiny boats. Where else can you find such a pure man against nature

The perfectly white meat and red patterns against the black volcanic sand.
battle anymore. This is almost a fair fight and the whales do win once in a while. This is so absurdly far from our western consumerism as can be. I don't normally consider anything a food item until it has been chopped to pieces and wrapped in plastic by invisible men. This is blood and gore and a life and death fight that ultimately leads to a livelihood for this tiny village.

That is also why Lamalera has been largely accepted by greenpeace etc. They are simply too small to really make an impact and if the species they hunt are endangered it is definitely not because of them. WWF has however tried to influence them and while we were there there was a town meeting that got quite heated over their town officials "understanding" with WWF.

My view is fairly simple. Just as the world would be a lesser place without the species that the people of Lamalera are hunting, we, the human race, would certainly also be poorer if Lamalera should seize to exist in the way that the people there have chosen.

Oh, and in case you were wondering. Whale shark tastes absolutely fantastic!!

Here is Eric with our share of the catch and mixed emotions.

Further east

The truck convoy leaves Lamalera at 3 o'clock in the morning. Well, a bit before that actually and on the Monday we left the truck was absolutely packed. You would think that they would switch off the music in the middle of the night, but no. The ride back to Lewoleba was endless. The longest four hours of my life. I started calculating how long it would take for me to be in Singapore and a little later I figured out that I could be in Denmark in about four days if I really went for it. I haven't really been homesick since the jungle on Sumatra so this was a most unwelcome feeling. But as my legs cramped and I got impossible tired I just wanted to get the hell out of Indonesia.

Fortunately Eric asked if we could at least check for a ferry to Alor when we got to Lewoleba. That had been our plan all along but before we left for Lamalera it sounded as if no ferries would fit our schedule. Fortunately, that information like so much other information you get in Indonesia, proved to be wrong. After having spent
Alor peaceAlor peaceAlor peace

Our hut at La Petit Kepa. The bed is hidden under the roof but the deck and the hammock is so much more inviting.
a day in Lewoleba relaxing and watching an amazing volleyball spectacle on the central square we caught an evening ferry heading 18 hours further east.

Alor is the last in the chain of islands called Nusa Tenggara. We only had a few days left of our visas so we didn't have enough time to do this island justice, but we instead went straight to La Petit Kepa, a guesthouse and diveshop, on a tiny island between Alor and Pantar. Eric had arranged this bit and had a surprise for me. As we arrived we were told we were staying in the last traditional hut on the beach. As we walked down there I noticed some elaborate thatched-roof shelters with hammocks underneath. "That's a traditional hut" Eric said and after having been speechless for a second or two I just shouted "I love this place".

As it turned out there was in fact a bed on the second "floor" under the roof, but I just slept on the deck underneath and enjoyed every second. We could only stay for two nights, but managed to get two dives and especially the last one promised that Alor is indeed a very

Even a bit of rain couldn't ruin the bliss of being on Alor.
interesting destination for divers. The DM's was excellent so this place comes highly recommended. It only added to the overall charm that the meals were served "family-style" with everybody seated at the same table and passing food back and forth. The best possible way to say goodbye to Indonesia for now.

We flew from Alor to Kupang on West Timor for just a day. Yet another island that deserves more time, but we only got to see a tiny bit of the town itself. We had an excellent farewell red snapper dinner at the night market and got quite a few beers on the way back to the hotel.

It is tricky to say goodbye to someone you have traveled with for almost two months. Eric and I have shared some monumental experiences and have also gotten to know each other quite well. I had a very large lump in my throat as I got into my cab to go to the airport and saw Eric and Indonesia disappearing in the rear window. Thank you so much Eric!!! It has been absolutely fantastic!

So, I am in Singapore as I write this. I have spent almost a
Worst road in the world?Worst road in the world?Worst road in the world?

Well, maybe no, but it was really, really bad. This is just outside Lewoleba.
week trying to get a visa to Myanmar, but an upcoming election has made them wary I guess, so I have given up and fly to Vientiane in Laos tomorrow instead. More adventures to come.

All the best, Jens


I mentioned Paul, the Australian reporter. Here is his article about our "adventure". He reduced me to a nameless Norwegian!!! Remind me to kick his ass if I ever see him again:

Pauls story

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 35


Truck insidesTruck insides
Truck insides

Yup, you can see the GIANT speaker at the end here. This is before we filled up with people and lumber.
Much BetterMuch Better
Much Better

We found refuge on the roof of the truck. We are heading into Lamalera here.
Lamalera BoatLamalera Boat
Lamalera Boat

This is so heartwarming for an FCB fan. Pretty lucky photo as well.
Harpoons and LamaleraHarpoons and Lamalera
Harpoons and Lamalera

The views back towards the village were comforting.

11th October 2010

Hello from Spain !
Hello Jens ! I was reading your blog between 2 meetings at work, and I see that you really are making the best from your trip to Indonesia. I did not know about the whales, Dolphin, whale shark hunters in Lamalera. But you are right, the guys there have to eat... Take care, travel safe, and enjoy the rest of your trip in south-east Asia. Pascal
12th October 2010

Having just spent one week diving in Utila, one of the few places in the world where Whale Sharks are frequently seen, and having spent a lot of time talking to Steve Fox ()Owner of the Deep Blue Utila), I have to say that killing those wonderful creatures just seems so wrong to me. Sharks are a rare to find today and too many sharks have been killed for their fins. I know that the people of Lamalera just do it to feed themselves but I still can't help thinking this is wrong.
12th October 2010

More sharks
Hi Søren As you can hopefully tell, I am quite torn about this. As a diver I feel absolutely horrible about having had a part in the killing of one the animals that I have had the greatest hopes of meeting underwater. But I cannot bring myself to condemn them for doing it. It has been their livelihood for centuries and the way that we treat the animals that we eat in Europe gives makes it even harder. BTW, how is the diving at Utila after the oilspill? A friend of mine told me that it would probably destroy the diving business in Honduras completely. Hopefully it is not that bad.
14th October 2010

Even more Sharks
Hi Jens. I can understand how yiou feel and I would most likely feel the same being there. Diving in Utila was great, they had not been harmed by the oil spill at all. But in relation to sharks, we were told that they had been hunted to the point that there were rarely seen any in the shallow waters or on the reef, which was a shame. It just shows what will happen when hunting without thinking on the natural reproduction rate.
14th October 2010

Even Even more sharks
Good to hear that Utila has not been affected so far. My travel companion in Indonesia did his DM there and he was quite concerned about the future for that place. The shark fishing around the world is out of control and there is one simple reason. For most people living in China the Shark Fin Soup was until recently something that only the most wealthy people could get. It is not even added to these dishes for flavour. It is only because the fins contain a lot of gelatine and thereby changes the "texture" of the soups and related dishes. All of this can be done by gelatine made from pigs etc. (in danish husblas) It all boils down to the same stupid superstitions and traditions that are also endangering tigers, asian elephants, Malay bears etc. But the global industry that kills millions of sharks every year just to retrieve the fins, dry them and ship them of to Chinese communities around the world has nothing at all to do with Lamalera. It is stupidity and ignorance that will wipe out some significant shark species. Not a single village in Indonesia.

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