Controversial images show the traditional Indonesian practice of sperm whale hunting taking place.
The pictures, taken by Swiss photographer Claudio Seber, show a hunt on the islet of Lembata in the remote Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, where the villagers are said to have been spearing sperm whales by hand for at least six centuries.
In the images, hunters can be seen brandishing spears and diving into the water to catch and kill the whales as dozens of other haul them ashore.
The fishermen use huge wooden spears to impale the giant whales. After they are caught the crew members carve them up by the water’s edge in a bloody ceremony.
After the whale is brought ashore it is carved up and divided among the crew according to the captain of the boat’s instructions
A 12-year-old boy leaps into the water with a long wooden spear capable of piercing the skin of a sperm whale swimming below
A man launches himself upwards in a jumping motion, forcing the sharp harpoon into the water from the edge of the boat
‘We’re living in a machine-era! Nevertheless, the number of sperm whales we catch annually has not increased despite the use of engine-boats to support the Paledang crew,’ Yosef Bataona, the head of Lamalera village, said.
‘Last year we’ve hunted down 25 whales. Some years we might catch 40, but sometimes not even one. On average, we need to kill 3 sperm whales a year to feed all our families.
‘We Lamalerans believe the whales are a gift from our ancestors and god. The Indonesian government officially allows us to carry on with the traditional whaling so we can maintain our livelihood.
‘They might change the rules regarding the radius of action, whereas the ministery of fishery and maritime aims to conserve manta rays and turtles. ‘However, we don’t follow those rules’ because this is about survival.
‘We couldn’t get through if only relying on the whales. Thus, we shall be allowed to retain and practice our traditional way of life.’
The successful fishermen take two full days to carve up the carcas of the dead whale after they painstakingly haul it to shore
Two boys sit on top of a whale fin while a team of villagers work to carve up the body of the dead beast just meters away
A villager plunges a sharp knife into the flesh of the dead beast as the long and drawn-out process of dividing it up takes place
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was signed by Indonesia in 1986, allows some indigenous groups to continue the practice.
According to the villagers, the Indonesian government turns a blind eye to their activities because it is not for commercial gain and purely carried out for sustenance.
‘Lately, we have been getting lots of pressure from the media world etc. but no one seems to really understand the deeper sense of our situation,’ Yosef Bataona continued.
‘Our people here struggle for one spoon of rice or a piece of corn. There is no fertile soil and the entire topography is stony which makes growing crops impossible, so we have no choice but to take full advantage of what the sea offers us.
‘Thus as long as no one can provide us the salary needed, we have to carry on.’
The practice of hunting for whales has gone on for in excess of 600 years in some places in Indonesia with many traditional methods still used
Dozens of villagers pile onto a boat as they hunt for whales using traditional craft and large wooden harpoons with sharp points
The start of the whale hunting season is ushered in with a religious ceremony known as the Leva (Ocean) Season Opening Ceremony
Conservationists are alarmed because the villagers catch not only sperm whales, but also protected deep-sea species like manta rays, orcas, dolphins and oceanic sharks with their engine powered boats all-year round to provide food and a living for their community.
In 2010 the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism (East Nusa Tenggara) and WWF fellows came to Lamalera to talk about conservation.
But as they were making their speech, some of the islanders set off and returned shortly after with their whaling knifes to chase the environmentalists out of their village, claiming they had been living a fine life without governmental institutions, so there wouldn’t be any need to talk.
Then, ten military soldiers rolled in, standing against a hundred outraged villagers and their knives. More discussions followed, but no solution.
A Catholic nun watches on as workers bid to drag the carcass of a stricken whale onto the shore for dissection after the catch
Several whale skins are hung up to dry on a bamboo drying rack after they have been cut from the flesh of the dead whales
A happy fisherman walks away with a large chunk of blubber which has been freshly cut from the body of the dead whale
A Catholic priest blesses the fishermen on the last day of the Leva Season opening ceremony just before they go whale hunting
The villagers are all said to be devoted Christians and they have well established a coexistence of their whale hunting and Christianity