Diving into Timor-Leste
Story & photos by Michael Buckley

Disappearing into The Coral Triangle—and delving into the mystery of the missing fish.

You know you're heading somewhere weird when people keep asking which NGO you work for. Upon arrival at Timor-Leste airport, the immigration officer demands to know which group I'm affiliated with. Indeed, half the NGOs on the planet seem to be represented on this island nation. They are Timor-Leste's lifeline: World Vision, Oxfam, Save the Children, USAID, the list goes on…

bubble coral

Formerly known as Portuguese East Timor, the island-nation changed its name to Timor-Leste when it gained independence in 2002. It became the first new nation of the 21st century—a young, struggling, impoverished nation, arising from the ashes after decades of guerrilla warfare with the brutal occupying force of Indonesia. Bright hopes for the economy lie offshore, in untapped reserves of oil and gas, resources that foreign corporations are fighting over the right to exploit.

But there's another kind of offshore treasure that I am interested in: pristine gardens of coral. Timor-Leste has somehow escaped coral bleaching—the scourge that has wiped out great swathes of coral all over Asia. The island-nation, however, has not escaped the scourge of human greed.

Diving with Jesus
Our divemaster today is Juvi. When Juvi started working for this dive outfit as a security guard and boat-man, he spoke not a word of English—only the local dialect, Tetun. Through superhuman effort, he not only learned English, he managed to pass all the tests required to reach the level of divemaster.

Jesus statue

Today we're diving the back of Jesus. That's a site in view of a huge hilltop Christ statue, with arms outstretched, Rio-style. So Jesus gives us his blessing, albeit with a backhand slap. There's another dive-site at the front if you want the full benediction. Juvi is currently the only local divemaster resident in Timor-Leste, but there's another Timorese studying to make the grade. Her last name is "de Jesus," of Portuguese origin. With a divemaster called Jesus, imagine the potential for jokes: I went diving with Jesus. Jesus gave me the shark signal. Oh, Jesus! I'm out of air!

coral fan

The second dive of the day is at a site called Secret Garden. Magnificent hard and soft corals appear—coral fans swaying gently in the current, sharper staghorn coral, labyrinth-like brain coral, and delicate bubble coral.

The dive sites are 40 or 50 kilometres out from Dili, so you get to see Timor-Leste's stunning coastline along the way. I rack up more dives, finding even more spectacular corals. Diving at Lone Tree leads us to the biggest collection of anemones I have ever witnessed—crowded with species of anemone fish that accompany them. This is Clownfish City.

But as I am entering these dives into my logbook, I realize there are blanks on the page. I normally note the species spotted on each dive in the logbook—but all my entries are for Nemo-sized fish or for macro life like sea-slugs.


So Where are All the Big Fish?
On a shipping dock in central Dili, I sight a dozen bumphead parrotfish, with distinct rows of coral-crunching teeth, lying on ice in the back of a pick-up truck. But I have yet to see this majestic species underwater. Every day, I see larger fish sold to passing motorists along the esplanade by men with spearfishing gear—like blue parrotfish. Same story: not spotted underwater.

Funny, because Timor-Leste is part of the "Coral Triangle," located between the Philippines, Indonesia, Borneo and New Guinea—a zone famed as a biodiversity hotspot. I have dived other sectors of this triangle and seen sites teeming spearfishing gearwith marine life, from huge schools of barracuda in Sipadan (Borneo, Malaysia) to rowdy schooling bumpheads in Raja Ampat (Papua, Indonesia).

So where are all the big fish in Timor-Leste? I put that question to Wayne Lovell, who has been diving these waters since 2000—and who discovered and named many dive sites. Wayne's answer: a decade ago, Timor-Leste had the big fish. Now they have gone; it's mostly coral gardens and macro life that you come to see when diving today.

Sitting in a restaurant overlooking the ocean, a long-time Australian resident called Mick elaborates. Mega fish-tankers from Taiwan and Thailand cruised these waters, vacuuming up everything in their path. But the locals are as much to blame—they over-fished the region. No, those are not real spearfishermen you see along the boulevard. That's a marketing ploy, the spearguns just props. Big fish in the markets like the bumpheads come from the island of Watar, across the strait in Indonesia. Mick says that in five years of fishing, he has landed only four big fish. "Big," he clarifies, means longer than the length of his forearm.

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