Is Timor-Leste The Best Diving You Have Never Heard About?
While making a television series, Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski explored probably the final great diving frontier – blue whales, sperms whales, dugongs, superpods of dolphin, giant crocodiles, some of the world’s best reefs and much more. Welcome to East Timor
Do we opt for the half a dozen sperm whales next to our boat, or the blue whales on the horizon? This isn’t a question you are likely to ask yourself many times in your diving life, however, it is our current dilemma. We are in the Wetar Strait - a 3,000m-deep cetacean superhighway which runs along the north coast of the island of Timor. Despite being a stone’s throw from Dili, East Timor’s capital, we are the only boat out on an ocean that is flat, clear, and most importantly, stuffed chock-a-block with marine life. However, there are decisions to be made. We opt for the blues (after all, the sperm whales are resident of these waters so we will have more opportunities).
We grab cameras, masks and fins. The blues aren’t hanging around: they are on their mammoth 10,000km yearly round-trip migration, from the feeding grounds of sub-Antarctic waters to mate and birth around Indonesia’s Banda Sea.
Skippered by Australian, Kevin Austin, the MV Atauro manoeuvres into position, one which we hope will bring us into the path of the whales. There are no margins for error here – the blues only come up for air every ten minutes or so before descending again.
The whales are about 50m behind us on our port side. ‘Go, go, go!’ comes the shout from Kevin, as we clutch our cameras and slip into the water. Keeping fin strokes beneath the surface to a minimum, we make our way towards them. With the most imperceptible of movements, the whales manoeuvre beneath us, the shadows of three aquatic jumbo jets. And then it dawns on us: we have just laid eyes on the largest animal ever to have inhabited our Earth.
The crew and I are in the middle of filming a new dive show for online wildlife TV channel, SZtv. Our mission for this episode of Timor-Leste from Below is to obtain underwater footage of pygmy blue whales on their great migration. Very few people have seen these animals beneath the waves. And we’re starting to understand why. While it was one of the most thrilling encounters of our lives, it could have been better. We needed to get closer. So we had to keep on trying, for weeks, until we got that magic moment: a 25m blue whale that nearly filled the frames of our cameras.
A dive destination like no other
Timor-Leste is no ordinary dive destination. Despite being located in the Coral Triangle, and sharing the same reef systems as Indonesia, Timor-Leste remains relatively untouched by dive tourism. Why, despite possibilities of getting in the water with resident sperm whales, blue whales in season (plus a whole lot more, as you’re about to learn), does it remain off our radar?
Well, first of all, there is Timor-Leste’s recent bloody history. The former Portuguese colony forms the eastern part of the large island of Timor (the western part is the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara.) and gained its independence in 1975. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded and a bloody war ensued. More than 200,000 East Timorese were killed. Indonesia relinquished control in 1999 and the first new sovereign nation of the 21st century was formed in 2002. A period of healing ensued, and Timor-Leste began finding its feet.
Life here – as one often encounters in countries recovering from war – moves at a snail’s pace. The fighting is over, what’s there to be stressed about? Taxis, covered in graffiti, chunter along dusty streets, seldom clocking more than 20mph. One of the problems for tourists is the cost of living. Having adopted the US dollar, Timor-Leste is now one of the most expensive countries in Asia for travellers. Another peculiar fact of life in East Timor is that seemingly innocuous activities such as changing money, or buying plasters for a cut toe can consume baffling amounts of time. All of these factors contribute to the country’s higgledy-piggledy charm, while reducing its visitor numbers to only the most curious and adventurous. Last year, Timor-Leste welcomed fewer than 100,000 tourists, compared to Indonesia’s 14 million.
Us divers are a thrill-seeking bunch that will do whatever it takes, wherever it takes us, to get our diving fix. So when we heard about the marine riches on offer in Timor-Leste, we formed a partnership with a local organisation set up to promote tourism, Noble Timor, to make an online TV show about the country’s best dive locations. Over the course of our trips to Timor-Leste, we would see not only the largest animal ever to have lived (blue whale), but also the largest ever carnivore (sperm whale), in addition to resident dugongs, the world’s most biodiverse reef systems, free-diving ‘mermaids’, superpods of dolphins, and ancient rituals involving giant crocodiles and bloody sacrifices.
A high sperm count
Once we were satisfied with our blue-whale footage, we turned our attention to the sperm whales. We were joined on the MV Atauro by cetacean experts Dr Benjamin Kahn from Holland and Professor Karen Edyvane from Australia. Dr Kahn brought along his hydrophone. Looking like a small satellite dish attached to a piece of bamboo, this seemingly innocuous piece of equipment offers an intimate insight into the lives of these highly intelligent, social animals.
‘Those clicks you can hear are the whales hunting, using echolocation,’ Dr Kahn explained, as we listened to the unmistakable sounds of a pod of sperm whales. ‘The clicks speed up when they approach their prey, which is primarily squid. And then, when the clicks stop – BANG – you know they have caught them. It’s pretty cool that we’re able to be part of their hunt, simply by listening with this equipment.’
These insights made us long for an in-water encounter. And oh, how we got one. One afternoon, with the water at its most pristine, director Will Foster-Grundy, photographer Gil Woolley and I, dropped into the water as a lone female approached. We waited at the surface, hoping for a fleeting glance. As she arrived a curious thing happened. She rolled her body and leaned on her side, sussing us out with one beady eye. Then, with a deft waft of her fluke, she cruised straight past our cameras, before descending into the deep, showering us in a cloud of her poo. We raised our heads out of the water and whooped.
For the following week, we were treated to more encounters with Timor-Leste’s other 24 whale and dolphin species. Risso’s dolphins sat vertically in the water column, waving tails up in the air (thermoregulating, perhaps?), melon-headed and even the rare Cuvier’s beaked whales appeared briefly, hundreds of spinner dolphins surfed on the bow of our boat and more. We even did an aerial study with a drone for Professor Edyvane to get a bird’s eye view of the action, counting thousands of individuals in the process.
Following our successes on the high seas, it was time to explore the coastline around Dili with Aquatica Dive Resort. Australian owners Desmond and Jennifer have turned Aquatica into one of the best-known dive centres in Timor-Leste. Dili’s star diving attraction is Tasitolu – a stretch of coastline eight kilometres outside the city that is packed with miniature life. However, we were more interested in a pair of local celebrities that hung out here: dugongs named Dougie and Debbie.
Every morning we sat on the beach, waiting for Debbie to arrive. And at 9am, regular as clockwork, she’d show up, sometimes grazing less than 20m away from the shore. Locating Debbie was easy, however getting a decent shot of her – head-on as she chomped seagrass – was not. She would catch a glimpse of us, rise up on her flippers, and head off to another patch of seagrass where she could eat in peace. With Debbie elsewhere, we were left to wallow in the muck. On a single dive we saw two species of seahorse, mimic octopus, algae octopus, two leaf fish, tonnes of different species of shrimp, and a frogfish. Not a bad way to spend a morning.
The other site that excited us around Dili was located a two-hour drive along the coastline, via a seemingly half-built road littered with potholes. A stone’s throw from an abandoned digger was Anemone City. Wading in from the shore, a blanket of anemones – maybe 50m by 50m – pulsed with clownfish. It was worth every second of our back-jarring journey.
The reefs of Atauro
From Dili we made our way to Atauro Island (Goat Island in the local Tutum language). Atauro lies 25km north of Dili. Atauro gained recognition in 2016, when Conservation International counted 642 species of reef fish around the island, making it technically the world’s most biodiverse dive destination. Our home for the week was Atauro Dive Resort, run by German Volker and his Kenyan girlfriend Saffy. The resort has charm in abundance and excellent food. We spent the next few days exploring the reefs lying on their doorstep. Although big schools of fish are hard to come by around Atauro, the seascapes are spectacular, with sites covered in hard and soft coral, and giant sponges. Shark Fin was our favourite dive site: a coral-splattered sloping reef, prone to strong currents and often schools of barracudas and sharks.
The Mermaids of Atauro
Our other reason for visiting Atauro was to document the Wawata Topu, aka the Mermaids of Atauro. This group of local women catch fish using homemade spear guns and goggles, all while wearing flip-flops and dressed in a lipa, a colourful cloth that the Timorese wear around their waist.
Our home for the next 24 hours was Mario’s place. Mario – a chirpy character with a booming laugh – collected us in his handmade wooden boat for the two-hour journey around the island. Here we would stay with his family at an impossibly pretty stretch of beach. We spent the afternoon speaking to the women, who ranged in age from early twenties to mid-fifties. They explained that they started fishing this way many years ago, as they wanted to earn extra money. ‘If the guys can do it, then why can’t we?’ laughed Eunicia, one of the more experienced fishers. Now, women from all over Timor-Leste visit them to learn how to spearfish.
The Wawata Topu showed us their skills. With heads submerged, they scoured the reefs for sign of life, barely pausing for air. Some freedived a few metres to look for octopus and other goodies under rocks, while others concentrated on the shallow waters, collecting clams and spearing the odd small fish in the process, as Will and I photographed the stunning reefs.
The final segment of our Timor-Leste tour involved venturing into the unknown. It was the part we had been anticipating with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. We were heading to the province of Oecussi, an enclave 200km to the west surrounded by the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara.
The major issue with diving in Oecussi is, well, there is no diving. There are no known dive sites, let alone a dive centre. It was therefore up to us to find some. This was true exploration diving.
We loaded up tanks and a compressor, and set off on the MV Atauro with Kevin and his crew, on the 10-hour sail west, into uncharted territory. No trip with Kevin is complete without endless supplies of treats, and we whittled away hours seated on beanbags, sipping from coconuts and eating slices of fresh mango. Life as an explorer had its perks.
We arrived into Oecussi unsure of what to expect from the next ten days. Our host for the week was Veronica, an Oecussi local who made us feel part of her family instantly, as children of various sizes tottered around. Every day we boarded the MV Atauro via a deserted beach with a mountainous backdrop before scouring the coastline. Our method of finding a site was somewhat primitive: spot a reef at around 15m, stick our heads in the water, decide whether or not we liked the look of it, and then jump in (or not).
With few pressures from fishing in Oecussi, there was ample fish life. A dugong even swam past us on one dive. But what impressed us most were the unusual coral formations. On most dive sites, a single species of coral had colonised a vast area, treating us to fields of daisies, grassy meadows, mountains of cabbage, and more anemone gardens. The fact that no divers had ever laid eyes on these sites made the whole experience a little more special.
An ancient ritual
In Oecussi we were invited to a ritual that surely very few outsiders have ever witnessed. We were off to sacrifice a pig in a swamp to a 5m-long crocodile. The Timorese have a special relationship with crocodiles. Creation myth has it that an ageing crocodile transformed himself into the land of Timor-Leste, to repay a child who helped him when he was sick, in turn offering a safe place to live for the child’s descendants. Nowadays, crocodiles are sacred animals that the Timorese believe to be their ancestors.
At the swamp, home to the giant crocodile that the community believed was their relative, the sacrifice began. When it was over, the village elders picked up the pig’s intestines, stretching them out with knarled, blood-stained fingers. As they studied the intricate system of veins, they murmured to each other, nodding excitedly: the crocodile had spoken. The ritual was over.
We slumped on MV Atauro’s beanbags and made our way back to Dili: our Timor-Leste adventure was over. All the hyperbole in the world won’t do our trip justice. Diving and travelling around Timor-Leste isn’t always easy, but open yourself up, sit back, and soak up one of the last untouched dive wildernesses on Earth. It might just be the best dive trip you ever do. n
‘Timor-Leste from Below’ is the third series of SZtv’s ‘From Below’ dive shows - the first features Malaysia, the second Indonesia. All episodes can be seen on www.scubazoo.tv or on Facebook www.facebook.com/scubazoo.tv.