Terrific Timor-Leste!

In July 2016, we went to the small country of Timor-Leste, in the Coral Triangle, with Blue Ventures.  Our mission was to spend six weeks diving in the most bio-diverse marine system in the world.

Seal faced puffer fish

From Blue Ventures’ website: “Bathed by the deep waters of the Banda and Timorese seas, Timor-Leste along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands form the world-famous Coral Triangle. While it covers less than 2% of the earth’s oceans, the Coral Triangle hosts more than 75% of all known coral species, almost 40% of all known coral-reef fish species, more than 50% of the world’s coral reefs. Numerous shark, whale and dolphin species and six of the world’s seven marine turtle species are also found here.

“The waters of Timor-Leste are a biodiversity hotspot and a global marine conservation priority, yet data on the status of the marine ecosystem is severely lacking, with limited monitoring and research. Blue Ventures’ volunteers will assist our team of scientists with the collection of marine inventory data completing research dives in previously un-surveyed waters. The data collected will inform Blue Ventures’ theory and practice and contribute directly to our efforts to develop new approaches to engaging Timor-Leste’s coastal communities in marine conservation.

“As well as surveying the status of the coral reefs, particular attention will be paid to threatened seagrass beds, this habitat, home to numerous vulnerable species, including dugongs, serves as a vital feeding ground and nursery area for reef fish.”

Atauro Island

A rocky island about a 2 hour boat ride from Dili, Atauro is home to around 6,000 people, who live on the edge of food and water insecurity, through subsistence fishing and farming.  In recent years a number of NGOs have begun working there, trying to improve the fishing, farming and water use practices to make them more sustainable, and also to provide alternative sources of food and income for the island. Most of the fishing boats are still simple dugout canoes with an outrigger for stabilization, and we would see the boats out on the inner reef most mornings and afternoons, and hear the crews singing together to frighten away sharks and demons that might try to grab them when they went over the sides of their boats to spread their nets.

Outside the reef, the waters are so full of life that they attract the biggest marine animals, including whale sharks and even blue whales!

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Atauro showed us a huge variety of fish every day. There were individuals, and pairs, and huge schools of fish, all around us, all the time.  Some of my favourites are the anemone fish.  They live among the stinging tentacles of the anemones, but are not affected by the venom.  Over time they build up a layer of mucus which provides protection for the fish from the stinging nematocysts of the anemone.  In exchange for the protection, the anemone fish preen the anemone to remove parasites. They are very protective of their anemones and often dart out aggressively at divers who get too close.

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We stayed at Barry’s Place, a small collection of eco-bungalows built by Barry and his wife Lina, and developed into a low-key lodge. Simple but comfortable rooms, with mosquito nets, and fans and lighting powered by solar panels located next to each bungalow. There are composting toilets and local style mandi showers blocks around the property.

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The variety and spread of corals here is simply mind-boggling! One of our tasks is to map the reefs, and in order to do that we need to learn to recognise the differences between the different types of hard and soft coral, and sponges, tunicates: all the different pieces of the substrate of the reef. One day on a dive, we found an enormous outcrop of tabular hard coral, which we tried to survey several times.

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Tunicates and sponges, anemones and gorgonians. There are so many beautiful creatures on a reef as well as coral and fish. The benthic zone is the ecological region at the lowest point of a body of water. So it includes sediment, rocks, rubble, different corals, and even the algae and worms which live in the area.

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Our days

Our days with BV at Barry’s Place were typically divided between wet and dry activities! The afternoons were spent in the dining room/classroom, studying photos of different benthic species and fish species, together with learning which types of seagrass dugongs typically like to eat.

Studying hard!
Learning about sea grass

Our mornings started early, with a good breakfast, and then two dives. Some days we got to do two dives each, and other days we rotated through the necessary safety jobs of being either shore or boat marshall. On the dives we practiced point-outs of benthic and fish, until we passed the tests.

Once we were considered sufficiently knowledgeable, we laid a transect line between pairs of divers, and on our underwater slates, noted what type of benthic organism was at each marker point on the line. In the afternoons, we entered this data into BV’s computers, so that a good picture of the reef system could be built up.

Sometimes in the afternoons we snorkelled in the seagrass, photographing and making notes on the type and percentage coverage of seagrass, to gather data on which areas might be attractive to the endangered dugongs.

Beach cleanup

Every few weeks BV staff and volunteers walked along the beach collecting rubbish. It’s horrifying and eye-opening to see how much plastic is thrown away and washed up. Some is recycleable in Dili, and some must be burnt, which although polluting is practically speaking the only option at this time.

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In between diving and classroom work, there was always maintenance. Dive gear must be rinsed after each dive, the gear area swept out and cleaned daily, and the tanks refilled. The local staff Amos and Mima seemed to work non-stop – training to be divemasters, cleaning gear, helping us with our Tetun language classes and improving their English. Boat captain Antonio deserves a special mention for his very capable handling of our dive boat in sometimes choppy waters!

Atauro diving


Weekends were rest days from diving.  Most Saturday mornings started with getting wet again: the boat must be scrubbed! But with many willing hands that didn’t take long, and after that we often went to the market or walked along the beach watching the boats come in from the mainland.

Beloi Market

Market days are a time for the local farmers from around the village to bring in their goods for sale, and for everyone to meet their friends, exchange gossip and buy the necessities.

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One week, after discussion with the village elders, it was agreed that Blue Ventures would have a stand with displays, at the market, for the locals to come and ask us what we were doing. With the huge assistance of the local staff, particularly with translations, we put together an informational table, along with some interactive items, and a life-size dugong (thanks Madison!), and spent some fun time explaining the work.

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Blue Ventures works with the local communities, to discuss needs and to build and maintain locally led marine conservation projects. This project in Timor-Leste is very new, and is still in the stage of gathering data, and having conversations with the locals. The intention is to work with the local people to help better manage their fishing, and also to offer some alternative income sources such as homestays.

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Vila and the Bonecas

One day we piled into some tuk tuks and drove along to the next village, Vila. There we visited the ladies who make some beautiful dolls and handicrafts at The Boneca. The women make some lovely items, and they do sell through mail order as well, so click the link and buy!

“…The Boneca is a cooperative where the pride of earning a living with your own hand is nurtured. The Boneca is a beacon for other Ataúro women, who wish to grow and work with dignity…”

There is also a delightful stop-motion film made about the Bonecas of Atauro. Click here to see it.

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We first arrived in Timor-Leste at the capital of Dili. We stayed a couple of nights, and got the opportunity to see a little of the sights of the city.

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Visiting the Museum of the Resistance was a powerful and moving experience. The Museum tells the story of the Timorese 24 year struggle for independence following the invasion and brutal occupation by Indonesia in 1975. Timor-Leste has a history of colonial occupation, and then Indonesian occupation, and a long and hard resistance and fight for freedom. The country finally achieved independence in 2002, following a UN mission referendum in 1999. Now this poor nation is trying to rebuild and balance the need for a modern infrastructure with maintaining a healthy eco-system.

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The morning we left for Atauro, we had a very early start, so our boat to the island could catch the tide. We waited onshore, and watched the fishermen come in, and the sky lighten.

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Sunrise is not usually my favourite time of day, but dawn and I met every day in Atauro, and I did grow fond of her:

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With many thanks to the hardworking staff of Blue Ventures. (We paid the full market price of this trip.)

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5 thoughts on “Terrific Timor-Leste!”

  1. Absolutely amazing photos. Thank you so very much for showing and telling us about this little known part of the world.

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