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Sustainable whaling in traditional boats: “In Search Of Moby Dick” by Tim Severin

I have written about Tim Severin a few times, always with admiration and excitement. I had noticed one of his newer books, In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale, in the library and had passed on it, thinking it less interesting. I was wrong.

Severin aims to track down the inputs to Melville’s tale, deconstructing the author a bit (it turns out he ripped off a few folks) while showing the valid threads that went into the story. To do this he travels throughout the South Pacific to communities that still practice (or until recently practiced) traditional, sustainable whaling from small, traditional boats. Fascinating stuff.

Former whaling outrigger, Pamilacan, PhilippinesOne such community is on the Philippine island of Pamilacan. There, crews in ~30′ double outrigger canoes hunted first whales and then whale sharks and manta rays. The most astounding part is the how: a key crew member standing on an outrigger would leap upon the animal with a hook in hand and sink the hook directly while riding a mammoth creature. The hook man would then get back in the boat and the crew would take a “Nantucket sleigh ride” until the animal was too worn down to struggle. The then towed it home. Traditionally, this was done by paddle. The island is tiny, so this hunt was basically their sustenance. Not surprisingly, there are a host of beliefs that accompany this work and Severin details them nicely.

Lamalera whaling boat and harpoonerAnother community is not far away on the Indonesian island of Lembata. Here the boats are not outriggers; they are more solid monohull canoes with square sails made of woven matting. The hunting also relies on leaping from the boat, this time with true harpoons. From what I can tell, the boats are built-up dugouts, with the extra planking lashed on. Severin notes that the canoes seem crude at first blush, but, in closer examination, they are quite well-built. Lamalera whaling canoe under sailThe islanders believe that the whales will not come unless the canoes are correctly built. I love that.

Since the subject of whaling is on the table… The people of Pamilacan have been forced to give up their hunting, but they have embraced whale-watching instead, using similar boats. This is also true for communities in Tonga that Severin profiles. As far as I can tell, this is not the case for those from Lamalera. I believe that these communities represent sustainable hunting and should be allowed and even encouraged, assuming all traditions remain in place and the catch is not exported beyond traditional bounds. This is 180 degrees different from the factory whaling of the Japanese (science my hiney!). We can’t punish these traditional cultures for the mistakes of our industrial whaling past (and present).

1 comment to Sustainable whaling in traditional boats: “In Search Of Moby Dick” by Tim Severin

  • michael

    I found Tim’s book ‘Moby Dick’ to be very interesting. he has another book in the same vein; ‘In search of Robinson Crusoe’. In both books instead of telling the story of an adventure of his he instead tries to unravel the myth, fact and stories behind the books. I found both far ranging and actually quite a bit more interesting because of that.

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