Timor Leste Offers Plenty in Coral Diversity and Macro Diving

by Mallika Naguran

Cristo Rei strikes a commanding presence even from afar.

Singapore, 19 March 2010. "Backsides" are not bad, especially if you’re in Timor-Leste. The backside of the spectacular northern coastline takes you to verdant hills and valleys during the wet season, and the backside of that would be a scattered village or two saved from the spoils of civilization.

The backside of the Palacio del Gobernador (Governor’s/Prime Minister building) in the heart of capital city Dili would surprise with backward food joints serving back to basics nutritious Timorese food cooked fresh with healthy helpings of fish soup with backbones et al.

To find out the reason why the fish soup tastes better than it smells, you have to go to Jesus Christ backside (pardon my French). This is the famed 88-foot Cristo Rei perched on the headland at Cape Fatucama. Jesus’ arms are raised, blessing all things great and small, squiggly and scaly. Sunsets are spectacular and so is diving or snorkeling just around the back of Cristo Rei, where you’ve to grip on to the 4Wheeler as it trudges down a rocky, dusty track where few tread.

Once you’re there, there’s no backing out.

The sea teems with gleaming fish - free as the frolicking dolphins - and no wonder.

Peel on the wetsuit and wade out into the warm temperate waters of the sheltered bay. Just five minutes into my dive at this site christened Jesus Christ Backside (I would humbly suggest renaming is to JCB to keep the nuns from blushing) – BAM - I came head on into a shoal of bumphead parrotfish. 

Dotted sweetlips on a teabreak at Dili Rock.

Swimming in the middle of the largely 24 female harem accompanying a proud male, I was exuberant. I sipped my air slow and deep. This was a dive to live for and I aimed to make every breath last.

But the corals took my breath away. Live, healthy, resplendent soft corals spreading out amongst hard ones, anemones, sponges and giant clams in a garden that could easily tempt chaste Eve. There were varieties here that I didn’t spot in the likes of Northern Sulawesi, coastal Malaysia and Thailand but very reminiscent of virgin marine life in Raja Ampat of West Papua.

Dirt Track, a favourite coastal dive in Manatuto district, offers at 17 metres depth spectacular coral-crusted rocks with fanning gargonions and thrusting bommies from which sponge barrels sprout. Save air! The wet soap opera unfolds for another 200m as you gradually ascend, running into dramatic snappers, parrotfish, butterfly fish, fusiliers and batfish.

Doing decompression stop at 5 metres will amaze. Here the sandy bottom holds a kaleidoscopic display of staghorns, leather corals, brain corals and anemones. Diagonal-banded and yellow dot sweetlips flirt, blue-striped snapper fuss, barber surgeonfish flit, and the ebony triggerfish fin in happy oblivion.

On the other side of the city, specifically the backside of Dili Rock, lies a dive site that together with Tasi Tolu is macro Mecca. You’d be blind if you missed the leaf scorpion fish, raggy scorpionfish, paddle-flap scorpionfish, anglerfish, thorny seahorse, ghost pipefish, and more. A night dive just 20m west of Dili Rock takes you to a shallow platform that’s a feeding ground for crabs and shrimp. Stick your hand out for a free manicure courtesy of banded boxer shrimp but watch out for the toothy morays.

Marianne has an eye on a leaf scorpionfish at Tasi Tolu.

A ray shark was spotted here and as always, dugongs rule this kingdom of sea. I didn’t get to see them though in my second trip to Timor diving with excellent PADI 5-star Dive Timor Lorosae. Which means, I just have to go back.

And commuting from Singapore where I live, to Dili, is easy. I just hop on to a thrice-weekly SilkAir flight operated by Air Timor (formerly Austasia Airlines) on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays in the morning, and arrive fresh just three and half hours later. Departure is also on the same day at three in the afternoon. So the best thing to do is to book up for up to ten days, dive until the morning the day before, and you’ll have spectacular eight days of diving with two dives daily.

Timor-Leste has so far 30 discovered dive sites. Mostly shore dives, six sites are located within Dili itself, and fourteen dives along the coastal road that can take up to an hour to get to. There are 10 dive sites on Atauro island alone accessible by boat.

Atauro island has a stunner of a mountain located 14 nautical miles from the mainland with amazing walls and drop offs inviting big fish and turtles. The channel between the island and the mainland is deep at 3km, which explains the deep currents and choice path of migrating humpback whales in October and November.  Whalesharks, hammerheads and manta rays have also been spotted, says Marianne Woodward, a resident dive instructor and general manager of Dive Timor Lorosae.

“The reefs are unspoilt because there is no commercial fishing, dynamite fishing or cyanide fishing here,” she explained, adding that the world’s newest republic nation and dive destination sees fewer divers compared to places like Phuket, Bali or the Maldives.

You'd be tempted to play rugby with this puffer.

“Divers can expect dramatic walls and healthy corals due to the nutrients brought in by deep welling currents,” said Marianne. “What they should not expect is resort-style diving like Bali.”

“Timor-Leste hasn’t got into tourism in a big commercial way, and you can still get to dive sites with your own group, which is why I love it,” adds Marianne.

Accommodation should preferably be arranged prior to arriving in Timor-Leste because they aren’t plentiful. Priced at US dollars, room rates can start at $40 to more than a hundred, depending on the comfort level and facilities offered.

Dive Timor Lorosae (starting from end of April 2010) offers shared board for up to 10 people with 5 bedrooms (twin share), a kitchen, 2 bathrooms, camera stations, and WIFI. Rates: USD35 per person a night, and yes you get to chill at the pool all night long with a margarita in your hand.

Where? At the backside of the dive centre of course.

Land photography by Mallika Naguran. Underwater photography by Daniel j. Groshong. http://www.tayophotogroup.com/

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President Horta on Sustainable Future for Timor Leste

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The Editor thanks Air Timor and Dive Timor Lorosae for their gracious sponsorships in enabling this interview.

Air Timor takes you from Singapore to Dili, and back, thrice a week (Tues, Thurs & Sat). Flight time around three and half hours. Flight details on any of those days:

MI 296 Singapore to Dili  0920 – 1415 hrs

MI 295 Dili to Singapore 1515 – 1800 hrs

Note: Marianne Woodward, since 2012, has left the post as general manager of DTL.