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TIMOR LESTE - WATCH THIS SPACE

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

As we motored up to the small pier a group of young children ran along the boardwalk to watch us. We waved at the excited kids and rolled into the water, excited ourselves to explore this pier, which hadn’t been dived in years. We were hoping for macro marine life and searching between the pylons there were plenty of critters but also so much more, as each pylon was encrusted in colourful corals and engulfed by schools of fish. This dive at Com Pier was typical of our recent trip to Timor Leste, too much to see and not enough time.

 

Timor Leste, or many people still know it as East Timor, is Australia’s nearest Asia neighbour, barely an hour flight north of Darwin. The country, after being ruled by the Portuguese and Indonesians, only established independence in 2002 and has since been struggling to find its feet with help from the United Nations.

 

The country is slowly building its economy and is hoping that tourism will play a key part in its future. But one part of the tourism industry that is already well established is diving, with a number of dive operators based in the capital Dili.

 

We had put Timor Leste on our ‘TO DIVE’ list, after hearing reports of wonderful rich reefs and brilliant macro life, but it wasn’t until we received an invitation from Worldwide Dive and Sail to join them on a ten day exploratory trip that we seriously considered visiting Timor Leste.

 

Worldwide Dive and Sail (WDS) operate a number of liveaboard vessels throughout Asia, the Siren fleet, and since the company was established in 2004 they have set a new standard in luxury dive boats. WDS already operate in Thailand, Indonesia, Palau, Philippines, Maldives, Burma and India, so Timor Leste was to be a new destination for the company, with plans to run eight trips in August to November each year.

 

This sounded like a great trip, with the liveaboard Oriental Siren to visit the established dive sites around Dili and also explore further a field to Atauro Island, Jaco Island and the eastern end of Timor. However, two months before our planned trip disaster struck when Oriental Siren sank after striking a submerged object while on a dive trip near Layang Layang (Malaysia). All the passengers and crew were safely evacuated, but the sinking almost threw plans to visit Timor Leste into disarray. Fortunately a replacement boat was quickly found, not quite to the high standards of the usual WDS vessels, but at least an established liveaboard. The vessel was the June Hong Chian Lee, a 50 year old Chinese junk that had featured in a number of films and was based in Thailand.

 

We arrived in Dili, and after a day spent looking around the town boarded ‘The Junk’ (as it is affectionately known) late in the afternoon. We quickly discovered that it was quite a comfortable boat, with roomy cabins, all with ensuites and air conditioning, a large dive deck and saloon. If we hadn’t seen the pictures of the plush fit out of Oriental Siren we wouldn’t have known any better.

 

Anyway, its not only the boat that makes for a great liveaboard trip but a combination of the food (wonderful Thai and western meals), the crew (a very helpful Thai crew), the fellow passengers (all experienced divers from the USA, UK and Australia) and of course the diving.

 

DILI DELIGHTS

Our first two days were spent close to Dili on some of the well established dive sites, which were just brilliant. WDS had formed a close alliance with local operator Dive Timor Lorosae, who had kindly introduced the crew to the best dive sites in the area. At Bubble Beach we explored coral gardens, home to abundant reef fish, and a sandy slope with numerous critters. During the dive we encountered turtles, nudibranchs, blue spotted stingrays, garden eels and a big marble stingray. With 20m visibility, 25°C water and plenty to see this was a great introduction to Dili diving. Nearby Dili Rock was just as good, another sloping reef with anemonefish, schools of snapper, crayfish, moray eels and a multitude of fairy basslets.

 

The highlight of our first day was Tasi Tolu, a sloping black sand beach where dugongs are sometimes seen. As we spent the whole dive looking at macro creatures we could have had a whole herd of dugongs swim past and we wouldn’t have seen them. This spot was just brilliant for macro life; on the sand were sea pens, Napoleon snake eels, anemones with shrimps and anemonefish, cuttlefish, shrimp gobies, dragonets and garden eels. But there were also many coral outcrops covered in small reef fish, including lionfish, boxfish, rock cods and two lovely anglerfish. This site was even better at night when an army of molluscs and crustaceans emerged from hiding, including bob-tail squid, octopus, hermit crabs and tiny shrimps.

 

East of Dili our two favourite dive sites were Black Rock and K41 West. Black Rock is a rocky outcrop situated off a headland and surrounded by walls that drop into 60m of water. We did a great drift dive around the rock and found walls covered in colourful gorgonians, whip corals and volcano sponges. On the dive we encountered a pygmy devil ray, a grey reef shark, crayfish and schools of fusiliers and snapper.

 

K41 West, located 41km along the main road from Dili, was one of the best dives of the trip. We enjoyed it so much that we dived it again on the return voyage to Dili and it was even better the second time around. This site is one of the best combination muck and reef dives we have ever seen. We started the dive descending down a black sandy slope where black corals and sea whips rose from the bottom. Searching the sand and corals we found two harlequin ghost pipefish, zeno crabs, shrimp gobies, fire dartfish, long-nose hawkfish, jawfish and razorfish. Numerous anemones dotted the bottom and were populated by several species of anemonefish, plus shrimps and porcelain crabs.

 

We could have spent the entire dive exploring the sand, but we were glad we moved over to the reef as it was just incredible. Here was a short wall decorated with beautiful sponges, soft corals, gorgonians and black corals. But the standout feature was the tiger anemones – thousands of them. Exploring the wall we found two leaf scorpionfish trying to catch cardinalfish, boxfish, trevally, snapper, rock cods, nudibranchs and a rare whiskered pipefish.

 

The dive sites close to Dili were just wonderful and the one thing we really noticed was the lack of rubbish in the water and on the coral. At many Asian dive destinations rubbish on the reefs has been a constant annoyance and concern, so we can only hope that the rich reefs of Timor Leste remain clean of this pollution.

 

ATAURO ADVENTURES

On day three we sailed 20km north of Dili, across the Strait of Wetar, to Atauro Island. This 10km long rocky island has only a small population and divers have only just started to explore its rugged coastline. We had two days of diving at Atauro Island at a few established dive sites and also at a few new ones. Deep water surrounds the island so most of the diving is on walls. Our first dive at the south-western tip of the island was one of the best, at a site called Big Fish.

 

This site looked a bit scary when we first arrived, with raging currents coming from two different directions and mixing to form whirlpools. Some of the divers elected to use reef picks, but we didn’t think they would help much if the current was over four knots! We jumped in and descended the sloping wall to find the current wasn’t too bad, around one knot. We then enjoyed a lovely drift dive, admiring giant volcano sponges, gorgonians and whip corals. The fish life at this site was pretty good, plenty of reef fish and also sweetlips, snapper, fusiliers, rainbow runner, Spanish mackerel, batfish and trevally. Some of the divers explored a plateau off the main wall where a school of barracuda had gathered, which will be worthy of future exploration.

 

We explored walls right around Atauro Island. The ones on the western side of the island were pretty, but apart from the coral and small reef fish there wasn’t much else to see. The northern tip of the island proved to be a far better dive site; the wall here covered in lovely corals and off the point was a sandy plain dotted with bommies. At this site we saw turtles, trevally, Maori wrasse, garden eels and a great variety of reef fish. The visibility was a little poor due to algae and millions of sea saps in the water. These cylindrical sea saps ranged in size from 5cm to 1m plus, and some of the biggest ones even had shrimps living in them. It was a surreal experience swimming amongst these sea saps.

 

The harbour on the eastern side of Atauro Island was a wonderful night dive. Emerging from the coral rubble slope were bob-tail squid, cone shells, shrimps, sand crabs, hermit crabs and many sea stars. We also dived the outer side of this small harbour and found a wall covered in gorgonians, volcano sponges and black corals. Drifting along this wall we kept an eye out for hammerheads, as our guide Brian had seen two the week before when they first dived this site. We saw turtles, dog-tooth tuna, snappers and fusiliers, but only Brian was lucky enough to see another hammerhead!

 

One of our exploratory dives was at the southern end of the island off a black sand beach. We hoped it might be a good muck site, and while the sand was home to jawfish, garden eels, shrimp gobies and an amazing variety of sea stars, it was also swept by currents, so not ideal for slow moving creatures. At this site were also some pretty coral gardens, and while exploring these one of our divers, Susie, was fortunate enough to have a close encounter with a dugong. Everyone else was extremely jealous.

 

The most spectacular dive at Atauro Island was also at the southern end of the island, at a small cove where towering cliffs plunge straight into 50m of water. We started the dive outside the cove and found some lovely walls, but the sheer walls inside the cove were simply stunning. Sheltered by the cliffs above, and riddled with caves, these walls were a tapestry of colour, covered in sponges, soft corals, black corals and countless featherstars. Of course there were also plenty of reef fish and invertebrates, but the colours where just incredible. This site had been called Manta Cove, but when we surfaced raving about the colours of the site it got renamed as Picasso’s Cove.

 

 

EASTERN WALLS

From Atauro Island we returned to the mainland and started our journey east, spending a day diving sites on the way. The dives we did at Lone Tree and Dirt Track were on pretty coral walls. At Lone Tree we saw trevally, fusiliers and moray eels, while at Dirt Track we encountered blue spotted lagoon rays and a large Maori wrasse. However, the best dive in this area was at K57, near the 57km road marker from Dili.

 

This dive started on a sloping black sand beach which was home to some amazing marine life. Exploring the sand we found forests of sea whips and soft corals, amazing sea pens, including one a metre long, shrimp gobies, garden eels, cuttlefish, pipefish, tube anemones, shrimps, crabs, jawfish and a flying gurnard. If that wasn’t enough we then explored a colourful wall at the eastern end of the beach. Before the trip we had heard that Timor Leste was a great spot for nudibranchs, but so far it hadn’t lived up to its reputation, well this all changed at K57. We saw hundreds of nudibranchs, dozens of species and they were eating, mating and just looking beautiful. With pretty corals, a good mix of reef and pelagic fish, plus the critters, this site had so much to offer that we dived it again on the way back to Dili.

 

At the eastern tip of Timor, around Cape Cutcha, nearly all the dives we did were exploratory. The team from WDS had hoped to see a lot of pelagic fish and sharks in this area, and they certainly saw quite a lot on the previous trip when they experienced strong currents on every dive. Unfortunately we had mild currents and greatly reduced pelagic action, but we still had some wonderful dives.

 

Our first dive here was typical of the area, a sloping wall decorated with giant volcano sponges, soft corals and gorgonians, plus pretty hard coral gardens in the shallows. The reef fish at all sites were lovely – angelfish, butterflyfish, fire dartfish, rock cods and masses of fairy basslets and damsels. Most of the species we had seen before, but there were also a few species that were new to us, the only problem was they were shy of divers, having never seen one before, so hard to photograph. On this first wall, which we called Shark Head Rock, we also saw turtles, white tip reef sharks, a school of barracuda and a huge marble stingray.

 

We did a number of sites around this area, explore sloping walls, steep drop-offs cut with caves and sandy beaches, but left most sites unnamed until further exploration. We did end up seeing a few pelagic fish like rainbow runners, Spanish mackerel, trevally and jobfish, and found that turtles were quite common, as were marble stingrays and white tip reef sharks. But exploring this area we also saw a few banded sea snakes, spotted eagle rays, gropers, Maori wrasse and two tawny nurse sharks on one dive.

 

Two of the best dives we did in this area were at Jaco Island, which is separated from the mainland by a channel only a few hundred metres wide. At the south-western corner of the island we drifted along a wonderful sloping reef wall, dominated by massive sponges and numerous bommies. We saw a few pelagic fish, but the reef fish were in prolific numbers; sweetlips, snapper, fusiliers and also white tip reef sharks and turtles. The highlight of this site was finding a large honeycomb moray eel hanging out of a hole.

 

Our dive at the northern end of Jaco Island was just as good, another pretty wall with trevally, rainbow runners, reef sharks, turtles and another marble stingray. This area certainly has a lot of potential, and even missing the promised pelagic action we still had some lovely dives.

 

PIER PLEASURES

Before we left the eastern end of Timor we stopped off at the small town of Com to dive its pier. Now we love pier dives and were very excited to dive this site, especially when the crew informed us that they had heard it was home to amazing critters, but hadn’t been dived in years. So armed with macro lens on our cameras we descended to explore Com Pier.

 

Straight away we were wishing for a wide angle lens as each pylon was covered in gorgonians, soft corals, sponges, black corals and tubastra – a kaleidoscope of colours. There were also impressive schools of batfish and snapper swimming under the pier. But we were glad we had on macro lens when we settled on the bottom in 8m to 18m, as in the silt and rubbish (the only site with rubbish we dived) was a great collection of small and unusual creatures. Cuttlefish, nudibranchs, flatworms, shrimps, crabs, boxfish, lionfish, razorfish and one beautiful pink painted anglerfish.

 

We stayed under the pier for over an hour and didn’t even explore the entire area, but returned two hours later for a magic night dive. It was even better at night, with more cuttlefish out hunting, bobtail squid and a great range of crustaceans and mollusc. But the highlight was finding a toadfish, this cute bearded fish was the first we had seen in Asia.

 

Returning to Dili, after nine days of glorious diving, we reflected on a trip that had included a great mix of dive sites. For us the muck diving was the stand out feature, but a few divers that weren’t into muck were a little disappointed at not seeing more big stuff. We are sure more fascinating and exciting dive sites await discovery as divers explore more of the underwater delights of Timor Leste.

 

TIMOR LESTE LINKS

 

 

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