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EXPLORING ASIA’S NEWEST NATION

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Over the last twenty years we have been fortunate to explore every country in South East Asia. But there was one nation we hadn’t visited, one that didn’t even official exist when we first visited this region – Timor Leste, Asia’s newest nation and latest diving hotspot.

 

We always jump at the chance to dive new destinations, so when the opportunity presented itself to dive Timor Leste on an exploratory trip with Worldwide Dive and Sail we couldn’t say no. We had heard a little about the diving in Timor Leste, that it had rich untouched reefs and great macro critters around Dili. But this trip planned to explore two offshore islands as well, Atauro and Jaco, with the chance of encountering pelagic action and who knew what.

 

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 (WWDS) 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 in August to November, 2012.

 

Two months before our planned trip disaster struck, with the Oriental Siren sinking. The boat was on a trip around Layang Layang (Malaysia) when it hit a submerged object and started taking on water in the early hours of the morning. The water level quickly rose, flooding the engine room and forcing the crew and passengers to abandon ship. All onboard safely made it to Layang Layang, but the ship was lost.

 

With most of the trips to Timor Leste fully booked the team from WWDS quickly swung into action to find a replacement boat, not an easy task in such a short period of time and with few boats matching the high standards set by WWDS. In the end they rented the June Hong Chian Lee, a fifty year old Chinese junk with a lot of character, but without the luxury appointments of a normal WWDS boat.

 

Relieved that our trip was still going ahead we arrived in Timor Leste and boarded The Junk, as it is affectionately known, for our nine day trip. The boat may not have been to the normal standards of a WWDS boat, but it was quite comfortable with roomy cabins, all with ensuites, plus a large dive deck and saloon.

 

The first two days of diving were on the established dive sites close to Dili, many of which are normally done as shore dives by the local dive operators. The check-out dive at Bubble Beach was a great introduction – 20m visibility, 25°C water (a little cooler than expected with the temperature varying from 24°C to 27°C), lovely coral gardens and a great collection of reef fish and nudibranchs. This site is said to have volcanic vents where gas bubbles through the reef, we didn’t see these but did find turtles, stingrays and sandy plain covered in garden eels.

 

We next dived Dili Rock, which was another pretty reef, but the highlight of day one was Tasi Tolu. The sloping black sand at this site is a haven for critters and we found lionfish, shrimp gobies, jawfish, nudies, anemones, tube worms, sea pens, upside down jellyfish, cuttlefish and two lovely frogfish. It was even better at night when we observed snake eels, bobtail squid, octopus and a range of molluscs and crustaceans.

 

All the diving from The Junk was done off two inflatables, meaning bottom time was unlimited and you could popup anywhere and get picked up. The crew, mostly Thai, apart from trip director Arndt and instructor Brian, were just brilliant, getting us safely on and off the inflatables, washing our gear and carefully looking after cameras. The meals, we didn’t seem to stop eating, were also great, a lovely mix of Thai and Western food.

 

Day two found us east of Dili exploring the dramatic Black Rock, where we did an exciting drift dive along a sheer wall covered in wonderful corals. We started the dive with a pygmy devil ray cruising overhead and as we drifted along we also encountered schools of snapper, sweetlips and a grey reef shark. We did a number of other pretty dive sites that day but another highlight was K41 West.

 

This is another brilliant muck site where we photographed ghost pipefish, zeno crabs, razorfish, jawfish, shrimp gobies, garden eels and numerous nudibranchs. This site also has rich coral walls, covered in sponges, soft corals and masses of tiger anemones, where we found two lovely leaf scorpionfish.

 

That night we sailed north to dive Atauro Island, 20km north of the mainland. Atauro Island is occasionally dived by the dive operators based in Dili, but is still largely unexplored. The 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. Jumping in, we 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 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, with sweetlips, snapper, mackerel, rainbow runners, batfish and barracuda encountered. 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 glorious experience; clear skies, calm seas and a very picturesque island to look at. The 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.

 

The outer side of the harbour was our next dive the following morning and here we 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. There were also 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.

 

At the northern tip of Atauro Island we entered the water to find it full of algae and millions of sea saps. These cylindrical cones varied in size from 5cm to over 1m in length. 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 pinnacles and a sandy plain covered in garden eels.

 

Sailing south we found the southern end of the island dominated by towering cliffs. Jumping in at a nearby point we drifted towards at inlet called Manta Cove. The wall here was again covered in healthy corals where we saw turtles, trevally, batfish and fusiliers. There were also 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 are 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. Upon surfacing we raved 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 wonderful wall dives that day. A sloping black sand beach was spotted, where a small village was located, which 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. However, 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 The Junk returned to Timor to start our journey east, to explore the eastern end of Timor Leste and Jaco Island. First stop was at Lone Tree and Dirt Track, where we found pretty coral gardens, abundant reef fish and a good collection of invertebrates. Before the trip we had heard that Timor Leste was a great spot for nudibranchs, but on the first four days we had only seen a handful of these colourful slugs, then we dived K57.

 

This is a brilliant muck diving site located 57km from Dili. We started the dive on a black sand slope and found garden eels, pipefish, cuttlefish, jawfish and a very pretty flying gurnard. But moving onto a colourful wall we found it covered in nudibranchs. There were wonderful nudies everywhere, and represented by at least a dozen species.

 

The following day we reached the eastern end of Timor Leste where a narrow strait runs between the mainland and Jaco Island. For two days we did some intense exploratory diving on both sides of the straight on steep walls, sloping walls and some wonderful coral gardens. The diving here was very good, and many of the dive sites were similar, with walls covered in gorgonians, soft corals and sponges, plus lots of turtles, white tip reef sharks, marble stingrays, abundant reef fish and a few sea snakes. The crew were hoping to see more pelagic action, but with mild currents the pelagic fish were not as plentiful as they had been on the previous trip when the crew had explored this area with strong currents.

 

The visibility was also disappointing; it was clear with around 30m visibility, but also full of plankton and algae, which made wide angle photography a challenge. There is sure to be many wonderful dive sites discovered in this area and it will be interesting to see what other marine life the team from World Wide Dive and Sail encounter in the next few trips.

 

One brilliant dive we did in this area was Com Pier. This small pier, which we were told hadn’t been dived in years, was incredible. The depth under the pier varied from eight to 15m and the sea floor was silty and covered in junk. However, each of the pylons was encrusted in colourful corals; gorgonians, soft corals, tubastra, ascidians, sponges and black coral trees. Swimming between the pylons were also numerous reef fish and schools of batfish and snapper. But it was the critters that really made this dive special. Exploring the pylons and silt we found lionfish, razorfish, nudibranchs, flatworms, long-nose hawkfish, boxfish, cuttlefish, gobies, shrimps and a wonderful pink painted frogfish. We also stayed for a night dive and saw a great collection of molluscs, crustaceans and a very rare toadfish.

 

Our nine days of diving Timor Leste was quickly coming to an end and the last day gave us a chance to revisit some of our favourite sites. We returned to K57 and this time explored more of the black sand beach and found even more critters. We also revisited K41 west, another brilliant muck site that was even better the second time around, especially when three solar nudies were found. The final dive was at Black Rock, drifting along the wonderful wall and admiring its colourful corals.

 

Returning to Dili Harbour after nine wonderful days of diving it was hard to depart the boat. We had made some great friends with both the crew and guests, sharing a special bond from exploring new dive sites together. While we had a few average dives, we also had some great ones, but that’s all part of the fun of exploratory diving. Overall it was a brilliant trip and we hope that Worldwide Dive and Sail find many more great dive sites to warrant a return, putting Timor Leste on their regular yearly itinerary.

 

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