Villagers & dead Blue Whale

The Seven Seas News - October 2014

Lembata Blues: Emotional Rescue

Report by Mark Heighes
Photos by Carolyn Tyler, Benjamin Kahn & Eloise, video by Peter Luce

We were diving at a site called the Brewery in East Lembata when one of our crew, who comes from the island, told me his sister had just seen some beached whales, six meters in length, on the north coast. So I let a few people know, via SMS. We gave some thought to checking it out, but decided to stick to the plan and cruise out to the small island of Komba for the next day of diving. Komba is an erupting volcano about 35 miles north of Lembata, out in the open Flores Sea. She gives as a good show both above and underwater.

While we were out there, I received a sat phone call from Jos informing us that the whales were not beached but, in fact, stranded in a lagoon and had been identified as Blue Whales - the largest living animals that ever roamed the planet, yet some of the least understood. They are very timid and elusive animals that do not like to be close to humans. We have previously experienced this on countless attempts to enter the water, swim with them, and photograph these majestic giants of the sea.

It's not every day you get to help out a few Blue Whales. So I put it to the guests, and we had an overwhelming decision in favor of sacrificing a day of diving to go help out. So that night, after some fireworks from the erupting Komba, we sailed back to Lembata to see what we could do.

We awoke to find four large Blues, ranging from 20 to 25 meters in length, swimming close to shore and trapped by a fringing reef. Then we noticed a gathering of canoes and a bunch of people standing on something. Much to our dismay there was a fifth Blue stranded up on the reef and dead. Apparently, it had beached during the night. It was a male, perhaps 18 meters long.

Blue Whale
Blue Whale
Blue Whale
Blue Whale

On closer inspection of the lagoon area, we found two small channels linking the lagoon to open water. The whales must have swum in through one of these channels and then got confused, unable to find their way out! The word was out by now. It wasn't long before we had the Bupati (= district chief) onboard, along with the head of tourism, WWF representatives, pearl farm employees, and a lot of other people, including journalists, etc.

The last thing I wanted to do was upset the local villagers, as they have a long history of whale culture and believe the whales to be a gift from the Gods. In the South of Lembata for example, sperm whales are still hunted traditionally. This could be a very controversial move on our part, to help the whales and cause some serious flack to all involved.

But, the villagers agreed to let us have a go at a rescue attempt, which I thought was very considerate of them. I feel some of the elders would have disagreed, but we had the support from the Bupati and everyone else present, so we made a plan to form a line of boats and make lots of noise to try to drive the four whales back out one of the two channels.

With our six kayaks, three speedboats, and three more small boats from the pearl farm, we tried and failed miserably on our first attempt. Our second was a little more organized, although still with a few risky “close quarters” situations arising. But again the whales managed to skirt around our chain of boats, blasting us with whale breath as they passed, while we were all banging rocks, steel rods and paddles, making as much underwater noise as possible, to try and push these stubborn beasts out to freedom.

We regrouped for a third attempt, and to our joy, somehow managed to drive two whales out to open water and freedom. I will never forget the sight of them heading at high speed through the choppy white capped waters of the bay, with their blows so much more powerful as they surged ahead.

We returned to the lagoon. The remaining two whales were the biggest and we tried to push them to freedom as well. But they began diving under our flotilla line, despite our rattling and clanking noises. We decided to let them calm down, while we had lunch and rested for two hours, then try again at 3pm.

On returning to the lagoon, we were shocked and frustrated to see not two but three monsters in the lagoon. One of the whales we chased out had returned while we were having lunch. The pearl farm boats were called back to their farm work, so we were on our own. We tried over and over again, but we were unable to move the whales from the prison they seemed to have chosen for themselves.

We managed to call in another live aboard, which was also diving in the area, and they arrived around 5 pm, to reinforce the line with two more boats. So we tried again, until the sun set, but we were unsuccessful.

At no time did the whales show any aggression towards us, nor did we feel threatened. And when I think about it, nor did the villagers, with whose customs we were obviously interfering. It was almost as if they seemed to understand each other in some spiritual way.

As we heaved up the anchor at the end of the day, one of the locals said we should not worry, once the dead male was carved up and distributed amongst the villagers, the remaining whales would leave on their own. We could only hope that this would be the case and seek comfort from the thought that due to the combined efforts of all involved at least one of the four whales was now free to roam the oceans again. But this was not the case.

I am at sea now, repositioning from Maumere to Labuan Bajo, along the north coast of Flores, from where we will start our next adventure into the Savu Sea. The guests are gone, I'm sitting down to write this report, and I've just spotted a very big powerful blow on the horizon, just as the sun touches the sea to end another day. And as I'm writing this, two days after our efforts to free the whales, I received a message.

The message is that another whale has re-entered the lagoon. Now there are four again in there. Wow! At first it was a shock! But then the penny drops, and I realize that the whales know their way in and out. This is no mistake on their part. It is what it is, and perhaps the people of Lembata will finally get to use the bones to rebuild the abandoned traditional building, that is still used for ancient ceremonies today, on the hill above that lagoon. It has blue whale ribs as roofing rafters, elephant tusks hidden inside. It still stands on the slopes of Illi Api, which is the almost perfectly shaped volcano that guards the entrance to the bay, overlooking the lagoon of the whales. I now hope that this will be the case, and that the people of Lembata hold their traditions and beliefs of something that we, as outsiders, will probably never understand.

Illi Api

One thing for sure is that if the whales die, they will not rot on the beach. Nothing will be wasted. Every part will be used and have some sort of cultural significance to the people of Lembata.

There is no scientific data that could prove or disprove any of my statements in this record of events. It is just an account of my own thoughts and experiences as I try to understand the relationship between humans and animals living and dying in a world that we are so privileged to share together.

Mark Heighes
October 2014

PS: In the morning of Monday October 27 another attempt was made to chase the whales out of the lagoon. This time 3 whales swam out of the channel, with one remaining. Fingers crossed that those 3 won't swim back this time, and that the last one will also decide to swim out very soon.

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