The thrill of finding the largest creatures on Earth alongside an outstanding array of coral reef biodiversity.
Timor-Leste sits between Indonesia and Australia, well within the so-called Coral Triangle. Once we get there and attempt an easy dive from shore near Dili, the capital city, it takes little effort to find evidence of outstanding levels of marine biodiversity. As soon as we go in, the usual array of Indo-Pacific reef inhabitants, as well as many local specialties, instantly start to unfold, either in dazzling colors or inconspicuous camouflage, all that against a colorful visual backdrop of healthy corals. We can easily spend countless hours, in successive dives, patiently searching for more and more unusual and often bizarre creatures.
Mesmerized by this overwhelming diversity, we tend to zoom in for details and forget the big picture around us. But the truth is, along the north coast of Timor-Leste, we are never too far from to the great ocean depths. In fact, the often rugged landscape of coastal mountains plunges almost vertically towards the blue abyss. This means a few sizeable visitors can make a surprise appearance any time and produce truly memorable experiences. During my extended period in Timor-Leste I was lucky to witness quite a few of these unusual events. (photo – clownfish, Gerardo Angelo)
Shortly after we finished a dive in the Ilimano coast, east of Dili, a massive whale emerged near shore, a few dozen meters from the drop-off where we had been only minutes before. It surfaced a couple of times and then briefly raised its tail flukes before disappearing.
We quickly packed our gear and drove uphill, and were able to see it resurfacing a couple of kilometres to the west, once again lifting the enormous tail. Judging from its sheer size, dorsal fin position and spray type, this was indeed a blue whale.
One week later, from a boat only hundreds of meters off Dili beachfront, we observed a group of six or more large whales, most likely blue whales as well, on their westbound path, seemingly indifferent to the hustle and bustle of Timor-Leste’s capital city.
An annual migratory route of cetaceans follows the north coast of Timor-Leste, with groups of whales majestically cruising from east to west. I was surprised to find that many of these are actually blue whales. It’s interesting to note that blue whale populations in tropical waters are considered a distinct subspecies and have been given the ironic name of pygmy blue whales, as they apparently reach only a few meters less than their cousins from temperate and polar waters. As pygmies as they might be in name, they’re still larger than any other species on Earth.
These seafaring giants seem to be solely focused on their long distance journey, as each individual relentlessly progresses along the north coast without any stopover. Early November seems to be the most likely period for blue whale sightings in Timor-Leste, but the exact timing varies from year to year.
Local people, with their profound knowledge of nature’s cycles, built upon generations of careful observation, tell us their arrival announces the welcome return of rain, after a sequence of dry months.
Tasi Tolu bay, located at the western end of Dili’s airport runway, has a sandy seabed interspersed with a few coral patches. It looks a rather drab place at first glance, but in fact it delivers an astounding number of strange-looking small creatures, often well camouflaged. But here, too, the focus of our attention can change instantly to sizeable surprises.
Once I was heading up the slope after a rather uneventful dive when a massive cloud of sand came from the eastern side, pushed by the moderate current. At first, I thought it had been the result of an annoying thermocline, so common there. I briefly checked the position of my dive buddies and then moved further up a bit, trying to avoid the sand that was coming in my direction. Suddenly a gigantic shape revealed itself – the dugong, a sea mammal that can reach a length of 3 meters.
I had just photographed a miniature frogfish minutes before, so I had to change most of the camera settings in a fraction of a second. For a while I was immersed in the sand cloud, afraid the massive sirenian might bump into me. When the sand finally cleared I managed to see it properly for a few seconds, before it moved away at a speed no human diver could match, up to the surface to breathe.
Late dry season (around the end of September and October), with improved underwater visibility and a flatter sea surface, seems to increase the odds of catching a glimpse of a dugong in Timor-Leste. But even with favourable conditions, sometimes the dugong is quite close and still gets totally unnoticed by divers. A thorough check at the surface covers much wider range and is usually a more effective search strategy.
Finding the right place to observe whales and dugongs is the easy part, and it doesn’t take much effort to get there. In fact, blue whales can be conveniently watched from a number of esplanades along Dili’s beachfront, and the dugong lives in the outskirts, a mere 10 minute drive from downtown. Needless to say that very few other capital cities in the world allow for such extravagant nature experiences right at one’s doorstep.
Being there at the right time is of course another matter, even during the proper season: either a moment of pure luck or the persistence to return countless times to that same place until the laws of probabilities inevitably bring success. However, in recent years, as local tourist operators have become more knowledgeable of dugong and whale behavior, successful encounters by casual visitors have become much more frequent.
It’s interesting to realize that, in Timor-Leste, both the whales and the dugongs seem to tolerate human presence to some extent, or at least have been able to do so until now. Being very close to Dili, the coastal areas mentioned in this article will be subject to significant development pressure in the years to come and, for that reason, should be among the top priorities for nature conservation in the country.
Both Ilimano and Tasi Tolu coastlines would welcome protected status, which could become much more effective through the creation and enforcement of a few carefully selected no-take sections. (photo – Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa by Gerardo Angelo))
Conservation efforts in Timor-Leste have started shortly after independence was regained in 2002. The remote eastern tip of the island, with extensive forests and a mostly pristine coastline, was the first area to be granted National Park status. In recent years Ataúro, a small island about 30km north of Dili and also part of Timor-Leste, has received extensive news coverage due to its very high marine biodiversity levels.
While there’s great potential to build a nationwide network of marine protected areas covering a wide range of different habitats, permanent enforcement and engagement of all stakeholders are always the key factors for success. As for the peaceful blue whales and dugongs, they can only hope that this long term effort ultimately succeeds.
Timor-Leste From the Sea to the Mountains
Gerardo recently published the first comprehensive book about the biodiversity of Timor-Leste (East Timor), underwater and on land. It includes photos of more than 900 marine species (fish, molluscs, crustaceans, corals, etc), all of wild specimens in their natural habitats in the waters of Timor-Leste, as well as more than 100 species of birds, reptiles and mammals, many of them endemic.
It is also an account of the experiences, often adventurous, of travelling to some of the most secluded places in the country. Some of the species featured are rare and/or almost undocumented, making this book an invaluable resource for scuba divers, birdwatchers and the academic community.
A few fish highlights:
- Diamond filefish (Rudarius excelsus)
- Nuptial displays of flasher wrasses (Paracheilinus flavianalis and P. paineorum)
- Banded toadfish (Halophryne diemensis)
- Lanternfish (Myctophum sp.)
- Striped marlin (Kajikia audax)
- Guitarfish (Rhynchobatus australiae)
- The book is bilingual (English and Portuguese, which is one of the national languages in Timor-Leste). It’s available for order at:https://www.nhbs.com/timor-leste-from-the-sea-to-the-mountains-do-mar-as-montanhas-bookhttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Timor-Leste-Mountains-Gerardo-C-%C3%82ngelo/dp/9895406703
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