Killer whale
A harpooned killer whale sank a fishing boat under water in Indonesia (wiki commons)

Eight Indonesian fishermen believed to be dead have been found safe after a whale they harpooned sank their boat off the island of Lembata.

The traditional whale hunters were fishing in a wooden boat when their vessel was dragged into the deep by a killer whale they were battling.

Of the crew of 12, four managed to swim to shore straight away, but the other eight disappeared underwater with the vessel and whale, the Jakarta Globe reports.

Local villagers said it was a mystery why they had disappeared as they had been fishing in an uncovered boat.

A search was launched by tribespeople and marine police, but there was no trace of the fishermen, the boat or the harpooned whale.

Before they were found, Lamalera village chief Yoseph Dasion said they were unlikely to have survived.

"We have sent fishing boats to help search for the eight people who had been thrown out of their boat as it was dragged into the water," he said.

Difficult catch

"We hunt these whales only for food for the village and it's sad that we appear to have lost these people when they were going about a necessary task."

The eight men believed to be dead were found alive at two different locations in the Ata Dei sub-district, having swum for 16 hours to reach the shore.

Lembata deputy head Viktor Mado Watun said: "Eight fishermen were found safe, but two of them were injured so they have to be treated at Lembata Hospital."

Traditional whale hunters normally target sperm whales, but they have become scarce over the last few years, prompting the fishermen to hunt orca whales instead.

However, orcas are known to be aggressive and much more difficult to catch, locals said. They are normally only pursued after the animal has fed, as they are more vulnerable then.

Lembata is one of just two traditional whaling communities and between them they hunt around 12 sperm whales every year.