Whale tales, tourism and Lamakera

At Wicked Diving we are committed to the development of communities in which we work. As a foreigner, I believe we can only achieve true success by fully immersing ourselves in the culture, the language, the traditions of these communities and ultimately fostering a greater understanding of all aspects of life. However, sometimes we may not like what we see. Do we judge by our existing values; beliefs that don’t easily align with completely different lives and pressures? Or do we merely observe, without judgement or criticism – for without empathy, change is not easily realised. At the end of last year, the opportunity arose for me to visit a well known manta and shark fishery off the East coast of Flores. Myself and a friend traveled there with open minds. Here’s an account of what we found.


As I walked the streets of Lamakera, I wasn’t shocked to see gill rakers of manta rays or tails of whale sharks drying out in the sun; I didn’t really know what I felt. Sad for the waste of such majestic creatures? Outraged that they are still being hunted? Frustrated by the knowledge that these animals are worth much more than what is exchanged for their severed body parts? This experience was not high up there on my bucket list. Yet here I was at one of the most well-known and active manta and shark fisheries in East Indonesia.

Indonesia, along with India and Sri Lanka, is one of the top 3 manta fishing nations. Indonesia also has multiple hotspots for manta aggregation. As an island nation, fishing is a huge part of traditional culture and daily subsistence. Indonesia is also a nation on the verge of harnessing the true worth of its manta ray population for the future ‘blue’ economy.

Studies published recently by collaborative conservation group Manta Ray of Hope, put the value of manta tourism in Nusa Penida alone to be $3.5 million per year. This is just one site in one country; global value is estimated at around $100 million. With the gill raker trade valued at $11.3 million per year globally, tourism way outstrips this seemingly lucrative trade. How do mantas make money? Of course they don’t put on their manta suits, pick up their manta briefcases and hop on a train to the city with a copy of The Financial Times tucked under their wings…if only! It is through tourism and all the beneficiaries of said industry.

Now of course tourism only profits those directly involved. The boom of the dive industry in Komodo, or rise in popularity of locations such as Raja Ampat and Nusa Lembongan doesn’t filter through to the fishing communities. In fact, the fishermen are often isolated and marginalised with little access to alternative revenue streams. And it was for this very reason that I found myself in Lamakera.

Lamakera is located on the eastern tip of Solor island, right in the flux of the Lamakera Strait with Adunara to the North and Kawula to the East. The Savu Sea flows in and out of this channel and it is a well-known migration path for whales. It’s not to be confused with Lamalera, located in the same region, and the town that featured in the BBC Human Planet documentary. Both communities fish, according to some Lamalera are less aggressive, but I cannot comment factually on that having not been to the town.

I had heard that tourism development was beginning in Lamakera and saw it as a great opportunity to visit a new part of Indonesia and see what kind of marine life I could spot. I’d heard about the area, in fact I speak about it regularly in manta ray education talks that I give. Moreover, I wanted to support the growth of tourism there. It’s too easy to be a ‘Slacktivist’ (my friend introduced me to that term during the trip – I love it). A large majority of my time is spent working on conservation initiatives. I do truly believe that every individual can make a difference. By visiting Lamakera and spending my money there I am giving evidence that tourists can and will come to this area. On the day we went snorkelling, the fishing boat we chartered was used not to kill the marine creatures, but to view them in their natural surroundings.

During my time in Lamakera, I joined two newly developed tours. One was a day trip snorkelling to local marine life hot spots. The second was a cultural evening which introduced us to local weaving techniques, the production of traditional fishing gear and we were even entertained by a short dance performance as well. The snorkelling trip was a real treat. From the outset, we started to see a host of marine life, starting with dolphins, then 4 pilot whales and then a blue whale! Overall, we saw 5 separate pods of dolphins, one that was around 40 strong! The snorkelling is pretty good in some places, and with such an extensive coastline, there is definitely a lot of opportunities to explore. One of the best things about the whole day was the interaction with the crew of the boat. It was the first time they had ever hosted tourists on board, and without doubt the first time they had ever seen two crazy foreigners jump straight into the water as soon as they saw a whale at the surface. For them whales are a source of food and money, not a creature to be observed and revered. The gravity of this small moment cannot be ignored. Introducing a new and unknown concept about how others exist with animals holds great weight – over time, it is these interactions that can be the most influential. No doubt the boat crew are still regaling their friends with the tale. Amped up by our excitement, the Kepala Desa (Village Head) even jumped in with the whale, something he had never done before.

The cultural tour was a little more haphazard, but enjoyable all the same. Due to the profitability of the fishing trade, Lamakera has all but forgotten its traditional customs. Only 5 of the elderly women in the village still know how to weave and those skills have not filtered through to the younger generation. With alternative incomes in mind, these techniques are being reintroduced, with the help of some of the residents from Larantuka, which still has a very strong weaving culture. Where the tour really excelled, and it makes sense really, was the demonstration of how traditional fishing gear is produced. Men weave fish traps in a matter of minutes from lontar palm leaves and thick cords are painstakingly manufactured from 100 thin threads. All of this accompanied by songs which bring luck and good fortune. The final act was the traditional dance. The performers felt uncomfortable at first, but it was well received. Almost the whole village came out to watch and everyone was thrilled when at the end the tourists jumped up and graciously tried to copy the dance moves. There was a moment of integration that hadn’t been felt before.

Overall the experience was a great one. Let’s get this straight, Bali it ain’t! There is surprisingly good 3G and boat travel between Larantuka and Lamakera is regular, efficient and orderly. Aside from that, any desires for modern and comfortable living need to be checked in at the airport for pick up on your return.

First things first, it’s hot…sweltering in fact. The climate is harsh and the dry land yields little in the way of farming opportunities, hence a large community of fishermen. The town itself is perched on a hill overlooking a picturesque bay. It is small and amenities are limited. There are a few kiosks scattered throughout, selling coke and peanuts, but do not expect any sort of supermarket or other restaurants. These just don’t exist at the moment. The population are all practicing Muslims, who take their religion very seriously and an ornate mosque is situated in the centre of town. There are no hotels whatsoever. All accommodation is in homestays with local families. The home stay we stayed in had everything we needed – the food was great, the rooms and bathrooms were clean and the family was very attentive. In general, the community was warm and curious. There was the occasional feeling of hostility, but this is understandable. Some of the residents are very reluctant to change their way of life and apprehensive about what it entails. With continued education and exposure to tourists, it is very likely that this will change quite quickly.

When speaking with our fantastic tour guide, Evi, she explained a little of the history of the village which helped us to put things in context and understand something about the attitudes of the community. The most striking fact to me was that the community does not believe that the stocks of marine life will eventually give way to this constant pressure. They believe that their gods will provide and replenish the seas. With this fundamental belief at the core, no wonder they don’t want to move away from what they know and are resistant to tourism and a change in their way of life.

Some might comment that surely it is unfair to force change upon a community, but without it the future is bleak. The average number of children per family is six. There are three schools and a large proportion of the young people go to university – around 40%, which is high for Indonesian standards. This is currently a good situation, it demonstrates the affluence of the area. However, it is too reliant on a fragile marine ecosystem that will be unable to sustain demand as local and global populations grow. Not only that, but Indonesia is now working hard to enforce its country wide manta fishing ban that was announced in January 2014. It was a brave and bold step and now it seems it is not just words. Busts are being made – some of the most prolific traders have been arrested in the recent months, airlines are being lobbied to ban transportation of body parts and the recent CMS listings of both species of manta is only going to make it harder to trade in this commodity, pushing it into the black market. Change is happening in a world outside of Lamakera, but the implications will have a stark effect on the lives of all community members. When the bubble bursts skills and training in other areas will be in high demand. Why wait until this is reality?

Tips for visitors

Responsible Tourism & Respect

Tourism is not a perfect option. Visitors to communities can have a detrimental effect. Be aware of what the local customs are and adhere to them. Dress respectfully, do not drink, conduct yourself in a civilised manner and do your best to be polite in all interactions. In these very early stages of tourism, every single person has an influence.


As in many places in Indonesia, Lamakera does not have a comprehensive waste management system. Please try to reduce the amount of waste you bring to this area as much as possible and bring back everything you can to Larantuka.


Be aware that facilities are limited. Security in your homestay might not be the same level you are accustomed to elsewhere. Decide if you really need to bring your valuables along and speak to your guide for recommendation.

Expect adventure

Lamakera and the surrounding waters are still rich and visited very little. Embrace this. There are very few places left on earth when true adventure still exists. Live like a pioneer. Don’t look at all the things that are missing. Enjoy all the experiences you will gain.

Jo Marlow – Conservation Project Manager – Wicked Diving