It's been a busy April, such that I haven't got time to post an article. But all is for the better good, for we are going to hold a stranding workshop and training on 1-2 May in Sanur Bali. 'We' as in the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Conservation International (including myself), WWF and a bunch of other cool stakeholders. Will definitely post the news and photographs after the event is done.
Meanwhile, if you have time (or just being curious), you can have a read at Grace Susetyo's interview of myself at the Jakarta Expat about the cetaceans in Indonesia. Click here or 'read more' to read the whole article.
Caring for the Sentinels of the Deep
by Grace Susetyo
Much of Indonesia’s seas are being “watched over” by friendly
creatures whose underwater singing and dancing never cease to melt the
human heart: some 30 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins). North
Bali’s whale watching industry is reported to generate about US$4.1
million per year, or about 40% of the incomes of local hotels in Lovina.
But despite Indonesia’s millions of square-kilometres of territorial
waters, cetacean conservation has hardly been on top of Indonesia’s
Even the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) has hardly
paid attention to Indonesia’s whales and dolphins, until in October
2012, 48 pilot whales were found mysteriously stranded on Savu Island.
The MMAF has since formed a national committee for the development of
protocols regarding cetacean stranding, to be published this year
gradually throughout Indonesia.
One of the cetologists working on this national committee is Dr. Putu
Liza Mustika, who has been studying marine mammals since 2002. “A
stranding event is a wake-up call that something is wrong with the way
we manage our ocean. These stranded animals are the sentinels of our
ocean, our port,” said Mustika. “If our sentinels are collapsing, that
means our port is under attack.”
Unfortunately, finding funding for the protection of species today is
harder than 20 years ago, because it’s not currently trendy. “There’s
currently not much awareness on the link between the conservation of
species and the other things it implies for the environment,” said
Mustika. “In order to conserve an umbrella species, measures must be
taken to conserve the ecosystem in which the species lives—for sea
turtles this means the nesting sites, and for dolphins this means the
nursery grounds where mothers rear their young. This may involve
assigning marine protected areas.”
It also means managing and educating the users of the species, such
as those involved in the fishery or tourism industries. It can mean
developing policies for sustainable fishery, or preventing hazards to
the species, such as vessel collision. “It’s like rowing past a couple
islands on one stroke,” said Mustika, meaning that the conservation of
marine megafauna achieves so many things other than the survival of the
In a marine ecosystem, whales and dolphins are usually the top
predators in the food chain. Theoretically, when the numbers of a
predator species declines, it creates a “cascading effect” on the entire
“In Alaska, for instance, the sea otter population declines due to
harvesting. Sea otters normally eat sea urchins, so now that there are
less sea otters, the numbers of sea urchins grow. Sea urchins eat kelp,
and their growing numbers are depleting the kelp forests [which supply
underwater oxygen]” said Mustika. In regards to the whales and dolphins
of Indonesia, their decline may mean the increase of other species that
may hurt Indonesia’s fishery.
Traditionally, most Indonesians have a friendly relationship with
whales and dolphins. Sometimes dolphins assist fishermen by leading
catch into the net. Although, there are exceptions to this, such as when
dolphins happen to be after the same kind of fish the fishermen want.
Most parts of Indonesia have a taboo against eating whale and dolphin
meat. In Bali, whale meat’s spiritual terminology is “ulam agung”
(sacred meat); the Balinese are encouraged not to kill whales, but
allowed to eat ones that are stranded. Many scientists think this is not
a good idea though, because stranded whales could be sick, injured, be
contaminated with heavy metals, or carry parasites. Necropsies should be
performed to determine the animal’s cause of death, but they are seldom
done in Indonesia due to high costs, the scarcity of human resources,
and complicated bureaucracy.
For instance, on this recent Good Friday (March 29), Mustika received
news of a stranded whale in Pangandaran, West Java. Mustika lives in
Bali and co-ordinates with her colleagues in Jakarta to organise a
speedy necropsy before the carcass decays. But not only did the
colleagues have difficulty borrowing a car on such short notice—even if
transportation was out of the way, they would not be able to access the
national park without permission papers from the authorities, who were
off for the long weekend.
Indonesian whale hunters are found in the villages of Lamakera in
Solor and Lamalera in Lembata, both remote islands east of Flores. In
Lamalera, where the population is predominantly Roman Catholic, the
sperm whale is locally known as koteklema (package from God) and priests hold a special mass to bless the whaling season in late April.
Traditional harpoonists row handmade boats and fatally pierce the 16
metre-long bull by hand before dragging it to shore. Lamaleran Catholics
liken the catch to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, offering
his body for the redemption and unity of humankind, and new life. The
whale’s body is then divided and distributed to the inhabitants of
Lembata, usually bartered with rice and vegetables from other villages.
This becomes a time where coastal Lamalerans and inland Lembatans come
together for a reunion.
The International Whaling Commission and most conservationist
organisations such as WWF do not oppose aboriginal whaling like that
practiced in Lamalera and Lamakera. However, Mustika said that she does
not know whether Lamaleran whaling is sustainable, because Indonesia
does not keep track of its whale populations, and whether they are
“residents” or passing “migrants”. These numbers are important to
determine the species’ Potential Biological Removal, or the acceptable
number of individuals that can be harvested without compromising the
Another factor to consider is the fact that whales take long to
sexually mature and reproduce. Unlike fish that lay thousands of eggs in
one go, sperm whale bulls sexually mature at about 18 years (or at the
length of about 12 metres). The cows give birth to one calf at a time,
with a gestation period of 14-16 months and births spaced more than four
years at a time.
Additionally, whales and dolphins face various hazards on a regular
basis. Oil & gas operations may cause spills and noise pollution.
The navy uses sonar, which may disturb a cetacean’s health and
navigation sense. Cetaceans can get injured when caught in fishing nets,
and even when they are released sometimes the wounds get infected or
otherwise compromise the animal’s wellbeing. Mining and industry may
cause contamination by heavy metals and chemicals, or otherwise alter
the cetaceans’ habitats.
Making Indonesia’s seas a safe place for our sentinels would thus
require the collaboration of so many entities: the government,
businesses, and civilians. In order to engage civilians, the national
stranding network will hold a “first responder” training (like first aid
but for stranded cetaceans) in Bali on May 1-2. Later this year, the
network is also planning a workshop that trains veterinarians to perform
necropsies on stranded cetaceans, and currently raising funds for this.