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Searching for Moby Dick

  • Written by  Will Millard
  • Published in Explorers
Searching for Moby Dick Will Millard
01 Apr
While filming a documentary about remote fishing communities in the western Pacific Ocean, Will Millard witnessed the harsh realities involved in making a living from the sea off the islands of Nusa Tenggara in eastern Indonesia

The man on the prow lifts the three-and-a-half-metre bamboo harpoon to his shoulder and I slowly lift my camera to my eye. He dives forward, hurling the harpoon as he leaps off the boat. As I zoom into the foamy splash he leaves in his wake, the spearhead meets its target with a blood-curdling crunch.

The harpooner is left floating in the Pacific Ocean as the lethally wounded mobula (a type of ray related to a manta) flees to the seabed. I’ve captured the scene on camera but any sense of satisfaction at a job well done is replaced by a sense of sadness at the majestic animal’s macabre demise.

Gradually, the jet-black ray is pulled to our craft via a long rope attached to the ironmongery lodged in its spinal column. A second harpoon through its skull and a grappling iron to the wing finishes the job.

The angular creature is dragged on board without ceremony. After such a long wait for a catch, relief is written on everyone’s face. In time, the harpooner will receive a larger share of the meat for taking the higher risk for the greater good.

Yet this small ray won’t even cover the vessel’s fuel costs for the past few days, let alone feed the families of all five fishermen. So the spotter re-fixes his eyes on the deep blue trench as the eldest member of the crew slices off the ray’s wings. Everyone is hoping for something bigger; I’m hoping to make it off the boat in one piece.



A week earlier, and with just 15 minutes to go before the conclusion of a 62-hour journey to Nusa Tenggara, also known as the Lesser Sunda Islands, a fellow bus passenger with one eye and skin like cured beef leaned into me and whispered, ‘We haven’t caught any whales for three months.’ My heart sank deeper than the Mariana Trench. If my upcoming, ill-advised Indonesian fishing trip didn’t kill me, then my boss at home probably would.

I was supposed to be filming a pilot for a documentary series on remote fishing communities in the Coral Triangle – a global centre of marine biodiversity with more coral and fish species than anywhere else on Earth – and had blown almost my entire budget chasing schools of tuna off the north coast of New Guinea. So far, I had two pieces of video to show for my efforts: a shaky shot of a school of yellowfin disappearing at high speed over the horizon; and torch-lit footage of a Papuan islander attempting to pass off a crustacean no bigger than my thumb as a coconut crab, the largest terrestrial arthropod on the planet.

The long overland journey to the settlement of Lamalera in far eastern Nusa Tenggara was the last roll of the dice. The village, little more than a curve of black sand at the base of a volcanic outcrop, is home to one of the world’s last remaining hand-harpooning cultures.

The object of the residents’ desires is the mighty sperm whale. This gargantuan prize is capable of feeding the entire community for several weeks. However, the price of the hunt is often paid in human lives during tooth-and-nail brawls that play out over hours.



Lamalera means ‘plate sun’ in the local Lamaholot language, and at 4.30am the next morning, I watched it rise from the middle of the sea. Five fishermen stirred under their sarongs in the bottoms of their well-worn wooden boats. (Lamalera fisherman prefer to sleep close to their craft during the May–October hunting season.)

These men would be my companions for the coming days. Two of them were sexagenarians, managing thick coils of rope and offering advice. Three teenagers were our spotters and harpooners. We rolled our boat along logs on the black beach and headed out to sea.

At the start of each of the first two days, we cruised from the shore and over a vast trench using our outboard motor, a modern addition that was unthinkable until just a few years ago. Then the engine was cut, and the crew smoked cigarettes rolled tight within bamboo papers before falling asleep for the rest of the day. We were in the driest of fishing dry spells. No-one in the boat looked bothered about catching anything.

To kill time, I shot some footage of other fishermen, with their beautiful white sails, sailing around the bay in the gin-clear water. I also filmed a green turtle rolling off our prow with a fat, translucent jellyfish in its chops.



I’ve been filming in remote tropical locations for several years now. With the reasonably affordable high-definition equipment available today, it’s assumed that you’ll always return with something half decent.

The trick is to pack a durable camera and a reliable back-up. Ultimately, equipment can be replaced, but if you miss your shot, then it’s gone for good.

On this project, I used two tape-based Sony HVR-A1E professional video cameras. This model is perhaps a little dated, but I’m yet to find a camcorder that’s as robust.

In remote locations, I prefer to record onto miniDV tapes rather than memory cards. Tapes are cheap and used just once, which means that I don’t have to digitise the footage until I return home.

By contrast, most modern camcorders use CompactFlash or Secure Digital memory cards. These types of storage device are too expensive to be purchased in bulk, so the footage recorded onto them needs to be transferred to another medium in the field before they can be reused. This procedure requires that you lug around even more technology – in the form of a laptop and multiple external drives.

In addition to the A1, I always pack a GoPro. This matchbox-sized, high-definition camera is both submersible and affordable, and can be upgraded with a range of fittings.

The GoPro has revolutionised adventure filmmaking. During this assignment, I lashed my GoPro to a wooden crossbar that supported the ship’s hull in order to record the catch. (If you’re using the GoPro marine housing, you must record sound on a separate device as the camera’s on-board microphone becomes muffled by the casing.)



Another modern addition to our boat, alongside the engine and my video cameras, was the onboard consumption of food. In the past, it was forbidden to eat at sea as it was believed that it dulled the senses when it came to the big kill. This wasn’t the case on the Copolere.

When it was discovered that I had brought neither biscuits nor cigarettes out of a misplaced respect for tradition, I feared that I would be forced to walk the plank. Before embarking on day three, I packed some provisions, but by then it didn’t matter – the hunt was on.

Within moments of reaching the trench, all hell broke loose. ‘Lumba, lumba [dolphin, dolphin],’ came the shout. Huge numbers of the small cetaceans lay ahead of us.

The atmosphere on board changed instantly. Every man was on his feet.

Two other vessels were circling. Like a sheep dog corralling its flock into a pen, our captain skillfully maneuvered the pod towards a deadly pincer of waiting craft. The sea filled with blood, but the men were far from finished. An imperceptible shift in conditions had brought the pelagic species into the trench and it was time to capitalise on our good fortune.

By the end of day three, our trio of boats had missed a greater hammerhead shark but caught two dolphins, a large mako shark, a pilot whale, two huge mantas, a sunfish and that mobula. However, all of this meat was still nowhere near the enormous bulk of a single adult sperm whale, the absence of which demanded more dangerous hook-ups.

Two fishermen were killed that season, one by the tail whip of a whale, the other drowned after a line attached to a speared manta looped around his ankle. While writing this article, I learnt that another boat had sunk while tackling a killer whale. Incredibly, all of the fishermen survived, despite having to swim for 16 hours, but the targeting of such a dangerous species signifies a willingness to take additional risks in what is already an extraordinarily perilous activity.



The fishermen of Lamalera may have further reason for concern beyond the jeopardy of the hunt. Previously, they were considered exempt from the international ban on whaling due to the small numbers of sperm whales they took each season. However, the impact of the shift in their target species is unclear. And with the numbers of mantas and sharks plummeting worldwide – due to the lucrative trade in gill rakers and fins – it seems unlikely that the results of any study into that impact will be favourable to this community.

I left Indonesia in an ambivalent frame of mind. I had not enjoyed witnessing the brutal death of marine creatures, but at the same time, there was something both honest and timeless in this hunt, where almost every part of each catch is used.

I knew that I had recorded something remarkable, but I couldn’t help wondering how much longer this community, and the marine environment on which it depends, can survive at the sharp end of the harpoon.

Will Millard is a freelance journalist and adventurer. He was the recipient of the 2012 Journey of a Lifetime Award – given by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in partnership with BBC Radio 4 – for his descent of the Mano River on the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia. www.willmillard.com



Hand-harpooning tribes don’t end with the fishermen of Lamalera. Some 12,000 kilometres away in Greenland, the Inuit people hunt narwhal by hand. The narwhal is prized for the rich reserves of vitamin C found within its skin, a rarity in this frozen wilderness.

The Inuit use single-person kayaks (traditionally made from driftwood, bone pegs and seal or caribou skins) and a harpoon with a bone spearhead. As on Lamalera, the hunt is seasonal; hunters have to time their arrival with the height of summer, catching the narwhal as it follows the retreating pack ice to feast on halibut, cod and squid within Greenland’s bays.

When it all comes together, an individual creature is singled out from the back of a pod, killed with multiple harpoon strikes and prevented from diving by a floating buoy made from the skin of a ringed seal. Every part of the animal is used and the precious skin, which pound for pound contains as much vitamin C as an orange, is sliced off by the hunters and packed for the long journey home.



Planning to film an expedition in a  tropical ocean? Will Millard recommends taking a secondhand broadcast-quality film camera that records to tape and a small, fully digital device as backup, as well as several items that will help with life at sea, including a jellyfish-resistant sunblock and plastic food containers


1. Pocket video camera

GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition

£360/74 grams

Small, light and watertight, this matchbox-size video camera represents excellent value for money. With video resolutions of up to 4,000 pixels, as well as 12-megapixel photos at up to 30 frames per second, it’s great for shooting footage from unusual angles


2. Broadcast-quality video camera

Sony HVR-A1E

£700/670 grams

I’ve taken this camera on every equatorial rainforest expedition I’ve been involved with. Bruce Parry used one in West Papua, as did Ed Stafford in the Amazon. Although discontinued, it’s still available second hand. Records onto miniDV tapes


3. Computer protection

Aquapac Stormproof Messenger bag

£95/623 grams

The outer shell of this messenger bag features a triple seal consisting of a water-resistant zipper, followed by a rainproof roll-seal and Velcro closure, and finally a storm-flap with side-release buckle. The removable laptop sleeve protects a 15-inch laptop


4. External hard drive

Samsung M3

£56/151 grams

Up to one terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of portable storage that fits in your pocket. Carrying several of these small hard drives allows you to archive and back up thousands of images and hours of footage


5. Wallet

Lifeventure Dri-Store Body Wallet Waist

£11/95 grams

The roll-top closure on this waist wallet creates a water resistant pouch in which to store your passport, money and tickets. The rear of the design has a soft fabric to make the wallet comfortable when you’re wearing it under a shirt


6. Sun protection

Lifesystems Active 40

£14.50/100 grams

There’s nowhere to hide from the sun on a Lamalera harpoon boat so sunblock is essential, and this one is particularly water-resistant and its slipperiness helps to protect against jellyfish stings


7. Photographic camera case

Aquapac Mini Camera Case with hard lens

£35/63 grams

A flexible, waterproof camera housing available for a fraction of the cost of a submersible hard case. Accommodates many compact-camera models. The hard lens provides decent protection and helps you capture better photos than with a standard soft case


8. Headgear

Berghaus GTX brimmed hat

£40/73 grams

A hat is essential to give your head and face some protection from the sun’s rays, especially while at sea. Fitted with a sweatband, a mesh lining and an adjustable and detachable neck fastener


9. Airtight storage boxes

Lock and Lock nestable container

£8.50/100 grams

I always take a few of these three-litre containers on my expeditions for storing digital media cards and miniDV tapes. They’re airtight, waterproof and solid. A couple of silica gel sachets inside each ensures precious shots will remain dry


10. Card reader

Lexar Professional Dual Slot

£20/68 grams

This USB 3.0 compact card reader accepts a variety of digital media cards, including the popular CF and SD formats. It enables you to transfer data to a laptop or to another memory card and is useful for uploading your footage after a long day of filming

This story was published in the April 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

Julysub 2020

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