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EXPLORATORY DIVING IN TIMOR LESTE – PART 2

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Timor Leste is Asia’s newest nation and latest diving hotspot. We were fortunate to recently explore the rich reefs of Timor Leste on a ten day trip with Worldwide Dive and Sail and discovered a wonderful mix of dive sites.

 

Our base for nine days of diving was to be Oriental Siren, a well appointed luxury yacht, with facilities more like a resort than a dive boat. Worldwide Dive and Sail (WDS) have been setting a new standard for liveaboards for the last eight years, with their Siren fleet exploring destinations in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, India, Maldives, Palau and Philippines. Timor Leste was to be a new destination for the company with eight trips planned.

 

Unfortunately Oriental Siren was lost two months before the trip (see part 1) and a replacement boat had to be quickly located. This was the June Hong Chian Lee, a fifty year old Chinese junk with a lot of character, but without the luxury appointments of a normal WDS boat. But by normal standards it was a very comfortable dive boat with roomy cabins, each with their own ensuite, a large dive deck and saloon, and also a great Thai crew that fed us wonderful meals and looked after our every diving need.

 

Our first two days of diving had seen us exploring the brilliant reefs and muck sites close to the capital of Dili (see part 1). However, day three saw us arrive at Atauro Island, 20km north of the mainland. Atauro Island is occasionally dived by the dive operators based in Dili, but is still largely unexplored. Our first stop was at the southern end of the island at a site called Big Fish.

 

This location is swept by strong currents coming from two directions, and as we sailed into position the water was raging, with even a large whirlpool spotted. We jumped in and descended the sloping reef expecting to be propelled by four knot currents, but instead found a manageable one knot current.

 

The reef was very pretty, a sloping reef wall dropping to a channel at 30m and decorated with gorgonians and large volcano sponges. We had almost 30m visibility and saw numerous reef fish as we drifted along the reef. The site quickly lived up to its name as a big fish site; we encountered sweetlips, snapper, mackerel, rainbow runners, batfish and barracuda. This was quite an exciting dive site and the crew are looking forward to exploring more of this area on future trips.

 

Sailing up the west coast of Atauro Island was a lovely experience; clear skies, calm seas and a very picturesque island to look at. Atauro Island has a rugged landscape with jagged mountains sparsely covered in trees, lovely beaches and rocky headlands.

 

Our next dive was at a site called Clam Cove, a pretty coral reef with abundant reef fish. The following dive was similar, at a site called Abandoned Village, but the visibility was marred by lots of algae in the water.

 

That afternoon we motored around to the eastern side of the island and anchored in the only harbour. We were quite an attraction, with most of the local inhabitants coming out to stare at us. We proceeded to get even more looks when we did a night dive in the harbour along a coral rubble wall. This was a wonderful dive with a great collection of critters emerging from the sand and rubble to feed. We encountered bobtail squid, cone shells, hermit crabs, sea pens, sand crabs, shrimps and some very unusual spiky sand stars.

 

We dived the outer side of the harbour the next morning and did a lovely drift dive along a wall. This wall was coloured with beautiful corals – gorgonians, soft corals, sea whips, sponges and black coral trees. A huge dog-tooth tuna cruised by us and we were engulfed in a large school of fusiliers. We also saw a couple of turtles, but our guide Brian had told us to look out for hammerheads as he had seen two on the last dive here. We all stared out into the blue, but only Brian was lucky enough to see another hammerhead well off the wall. If hammerheads are regularly seen at this site it has the potential to be an awesome dive site.

 

We then headed up to the northern tip of Atauro Island, but entering the water we found it full of algae and millions of sea saps. These cylindrical cones varied in size from 5cm to over 1m in length. It was like diving in a sea full of condoms, a very novel experience. This site was another pretty wall with beautiful corals and turtles, sweetlips, snapper and a huge school of pyramid butterflyfish. As we drifted closer to the point the wall disappeared and we found a series of bommies and a sandy plain covered in garden eels. An interesting site that will be worthy of more exploration.

 

Sailing south we found the southern end of the island dominated by towering cliffs. We jumped in at a nearby point and drifted towards at inlet called Manta Cove. The wall here was again covered in healthy corals where we saw turtles, trevally, batfish and fusiliers. We also passed a number of bamboo fish traps set by the locals. It took us about forty minutes to reach the cove, but we wish we had got here sooner as it was simply spectacular. No manta, but those towering cliffs plunge straight to 50m and the walls are cut by numerous caves. However, it was the spectacular corals that left us spellbound. These walls were covered with a tapestry of colour; sponges, soft corals, black corals, gorgonians, sea whips and a multitude of feather stars. There was barely a centimetre of spare space. We surfaced raving about the colours, saying it was like a Picasso painting. As no manta had been seen, the crew decided to rename the site Picasso’s Cove.

 

Our final dive at Atauro Island had us looking for a muck diving site after three lovely wall dives that day. We found a sloping black sand beach where a small village was located and thought it looked promising for an exploratory dive. The black sand at this site was home to jawfish, shrimp gobies, nudibranchs and one of the biggest varieties of sea stars we have seen anywhere. But it was also swept by currents, so didn’t have any unusual critters. But this site did have some lovely coral gardens, and while most of us were busy looking for critters, one of the divers, Susie, was exploring the corals and had an amazing experience when a dugong swam by her! We were all very jealous.

 

That night we returned to Timor and started our journey east, to explore the little dived eastern end of Timor Leste and Jaco Island, which we will look at next issue.

 

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