The Last Whalers by Doug Bock Clark

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Award-winning reporter Doug Bock Clark’s nonfiction debut The Last Whalers recounts the years he spent on a remote Savu Sea island in a far corner of Indonesia among the Lamalerans, a tribe of 1,500 natives Clark describes as the world’s last remaining subsistence whalers. Every year, the tribe’s three hundred hunters pull out to sea and kill an average of twenty sperm whales, and the tribe members live on the preserved whale meat “through the lean monsoon season, when storms make it difficult to launch their ships.” During his time with the Lamalerans, Clark came to know the various families, including the Seran Blikololong family, whose patriarch and most renowned harpooner Ignatius is worried that the variety and opportunity of the broader outside world, now readily available through cell phones and the Internet, will draw his sons Yosef, “Ondu,” and “Ben” away from the traditions that have guided the Lamalerans for centuries. Those traditions, Clark relates, are under siege not only from YouTube but also from fleets of industrial trawlers over-fishing the surrounding seas, and even, as Clark glancingly mentions, by foreign activists seeking to change the Lamaleran way of life.

Clark writes movingly of the time he’s spent with these people, and to the larger issues he sees them as embodying. “The Lamalerans’ experience, then, speaks not just to the danger faced by earth’s remaining indigenous peoples but to the greater cultural extinction humanity is suffering,” Clark writes. “As the number of ways to be human rapidly diminishes, all people, whether in industrialized or traditional societies, must ask: What is being lost as our original modes of life die out?”

Confronted with such rhetoric, readers prone to forget might need reminding that the Lamalerans aren’t basket-weavers. They are doing their very best, on their modest, non-industrial level, to over-fish the surrounding seas, killing dolphins and large mantas as often as they can in addition to the sperm whales that are their main prey. According to Clark, the whales are also key features in the Lamalerans’ shamanistic religion. “For the sperm whales they chase are not just animals but gifts sent by the Ancestors to sustain them as a reward for following their Way,” he writes. “Maintaining a strong relationship with the spirits is key to a successful life.” Unless you leave Lembata with your girlfriend and set up a prosperous convenience store in Sulawesi or Jakarta. Maybe then the Ancestors have you fill out a local zoning form so you can slaughter stray cats instead.

Clark occasionally remembers to inform his readers about the sperm whales his host families are killing. He mentions that the Lamalerans’ hunting barely makes a scratch on the world-wide sperm whale population, and he goes into detail about the whales themselves:

Sperm whales have the biggest brains of any creature in history. Their gray matter even features extremely rare neurons called spindle cells - also found in humans - which govern communication, compassion, and the ability to feel suffering. They live in widely spaced groups that display distinct methods of hunting squid and child-rearing, such that researchers consider them to have discrete “cultures,” just like humans. Moreover, each whale has a personalized set of clicks used to identify itself - and thus its own “name” and perhaps even “whalehood.”

And just in case such savagely callous taunting weren’t enough, just in case there might be even a handful of readers who would learn such facts - that sperm whales have a human-like ability to conceptualize both suffering and childcare, that they have language, culture, and personhood - and still trundle merrily along with the book’s thrilling tales of harpoons and metal spikes and showers of blood, on the faint off-chance that he might have a couple of readers who might try to ease the awkwardness by telling themselves that at least the Lamalerans themselves must view their prey as mere dumb machines they have every right to hunt and kill, no, no, they know precisely otherwise. During one hunt, for instance, Ben knows perfectly well what kind of drama he’ll see unfold when he harpoons a sperm whale calf in front of its mother:

Ben, like every other Lamaleran, knew all about sperm whales and family loyalty. When the calf had been harpooned, he correctly predicted that the mother would not abandon it. But what really stuck with him was watching the child’s tail slap ineffectually at Yosef as his eldest brother dispatched the mother, before the juvenile too was killed.

In case the sequence was unclear there: the baby was harpooned and screamed in agony, the mother refused to abandon the baby, the mother was then harpooned and screamed in agony, the baby watched her get harpooned a few more times and die, and then the baby was harpooned a few more times until it was dead too. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind exactly what was happening at any point. The whales understood it every bit as clearly as Ben and Yosef did, and as Clark does.

“The loss of a culture is as permanent as the loss of a life, but rather than one star darkening, it is a whole constellation burning out,” Clark writes in one of the not-infrequent moments of sententious moralizing in this hideous, grotesquely hypocritical book. To clarify, the culture he’s talking about here is that of the Lamalerans, who venture out every season to kill what even their foremost defender can’t avoid describing as self-aware individuals possessing compassion and culture.  The Lamalerans then butcher those individuals for meat.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.