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THE UNDERWATER DELIGHTS OF TIMOR LESTE

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Exploratory diving can be very hit and miss and the results can be either very exciting or very disappointing. We recently joined an exploratory liveaboard trip to Timor Leste with Worldwide Dive and Sail and found that some of the dives were average, some were good, and some were great, but none were disappointing as we explored Asia’s newest nation.

 

Timor Leste sits right on Australia’s doorstep, barely an hour flight north of Darwin. The tiny nation, only a decade old after its fight for independence, is struggling to build its economy and find its feet in the world. But it is hoping that tourism will bring in much needed revenue. One part of the tourism industry that is already established is diving, with divers journeying from around the planet to dive Timor Leste’s beautiful unspoilt coral reefs.

 

There are a number of dive companies based in the capital of Dili, but our trip to Timor Leste was to be something special, a ten day liveaboard dive trip exploring the country from a luxury dive boat. The trip was planned to dive some of the most popular sites already discovered around Dili and also explore further a field to Atauro Island, Jaco Island and the eastern end of Timor Leste.

 

The trip was organised by Worldwide Dive and Sail, which have a range of luxury liveaboard dive boats, the Siren fleet, based in Asia. They had planned eight 10 day trips in August to November, and if the diving proved to be fruitful they planned to add Timor Leste as a regular destination for their fleet.

 

Our first two days were spent diving some of the best dives sites around Dili. These were just superb and a great introduction to the diving in Timor Leste with warm clear water and healthy coral reefs full of life. At Black Rock we drifted along a steep wall covered in spectacular adornments – gorgonian fans, sea whips, radiant soft corals and giant volcano sponges. We encountered turtles, crayfish and even a grey reef shark and pygmy devil ray. The reef fish were prolific and colourful at each site we explored, and included angelfish, butterflyfish, anemonefish, parrotfish and multitudes of fairy basslets.

 

However, the best dive sites close to Dili were two sites with black sandy bottoms that were home to bizarre and usual critters. At Tasi Tolu we found lionfish, cuttlefish, hermit crabs, shrimp gobies, anemones full of shrimps and anemonefish, strange upside down jellyfish, sea pens, snake eels and garden eels. There were also a number of coral outcrops where the life was concentrated and here we found two lovely anglerfish, one only 2cm long.

 

The other great muck site we dived was called K41 West. This site not only had black sand, where we saw ghost pipefish, razorfish and many other critters, but also had lovely coral gardens and a highly decorated wall. Here we found a great abundance of reef fish, including sweetlips, snapper and batfish, plus trevally, barracuda and blue spotted stingrays. But the highlight was the colourful wall where we photographed two beautiful leaf scorpionfish, many colourful nudibranchs and a rare whiskered pipefish.

 

From Dili we sailed 20km north to the largely unexplored Atauro Island. Here we found steep coral walls and encountered a good collection of reef and pelagic fish, plus a few unusual extras. At the southern end of the island we did a fast paced drift dive at a site called Big Fish. This site certainly lived up to its name as we encountered barracuda, batfish, tuna, rainbow runners, mackerel and trevally. Nearby we dived one of the prettiest dive sites we have ever seen, called Picasso’s Cove. Above this site are towering cliffs that plummet down into 50m of water. Exploring these underwater cliffs we found them riddled with caves, home to masses of reef fish and covered in some of the most colourful corals we have ever seen.

 

Around other parts of Atauro Island we dived coral reefs and saw reef fish and numerous turtles. On one dive site a dugong was sighted. These rare mammals are said to be commonly seen in the waters of Timor Leste. Another highlight at Atauro Island was a dive at the only harbour on the island. Here we explored a colourful reef wall packed with multitudes of fish, turtles and invertebrates. One of the guides, Brian, was fortunate to encounter a hammerhead shark here. He had also seen two hammerheads the last time he had dived this site, only the week before. After that dive everyone stuck close to Brian, hoping he was a lucky charm for attracting sharks.

 

One of the joys of the trip was just sailing around the coastline of Timor Leste. Between dives, when we were not consuming the wonderful food prepared by the onboard Thai chefs, we would spend our time looking out for dolphins, sea birds and flying fish. The coastline of Timor Leste is very picturesque with rugged mountains, lovely palm tree studded beaches and many spectacular rocky headlands, with little sign of habitation.

 

Returning to the mainland we ventured east, diving the coastline as we went. K57, 57km east of Dili, was another wonderful dive site. We started by descending a black sand beach that was home to critters and ended the dive exploring a colourful coral wall with even more critters. This site had our cameras working overtime, photographing cuttlefish, gobies, porcelain crabs and a huge variety of nudibranchs.

 

Arriving at the eastern tip of Timor we were gear up for adventure as almost all the sites we were to dive had either never been dived before or only by a handful of people. For two days we dived site after site, most were steep reef walls, covered in lovely coral and populated by reef fish. Turtles were encountered on most dives, as were blue spotted lagoon rays and larger marble stingrays. White tip reef sharks were the only common shark species found, apart from two large tawny nurse sharks hiding in a cave on one dive.

 

The crew had hoped to see more pelagic fish on these walls; we did see quite a few, but not nearly as many as they had seen on the previous trip when they had stronger currents. We couldn’t complain as there was still plenty to see, and the pelagic fish were obviously still about as we could see them jumping on the surface.

 

Off the eastern tip of Timor lies Jaco Island, another virgin dive site. We had two lovely dives here, and would have liked to have explored more of the island’s reefs if conditions had allowed. The visibility was a bit murky around Jaco Island, not the 20m to 30m visibility we had enjoyed elsewhere, but we still saw lovely corals and a good range of marine life. The best site was a sloping reef at the southern end of the island, which had countless giant sponges and many rocky outcrops where snapper, sweetlips, turtles and moray eels sheltered.

 

Heading back to Dili we revisited some of the best dive sites, but also stopped to do one special site – Com Pier. We had been told that the pier hadn’t been dived in years, but was well worth a look. We jumped in to find an underwater forest of colourful pylons, schooling fish and a great range of small critters. Batfish, snapper, lionfish, cuttlefish, boxfish, toadfish, nudibranchs and anglerfish were just some of the species we found under this pier in depths from 8m to 15m

 

Our voyage of discovery was a great success; we had explored many new dive sites and seen a great collection of marine life. On any liveaboard trip it is not only the diving that makes for a wonderful trip, but a great crew, a good boat, great food and good company, and we had all of these ingredients in the right mix. We are sure many more underwater delights await to be found as divers explore more of the rich waters of Timor Leste.

 

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