Timor-Leste Scuba Dive Photo Contest 2010 Results And Behind The Scene Tales

Melanie Smith and her husband Michael travelled to Dili, Timor-Leste to be part of the country’s first dive photo contest and mingle with experienced and published photographers from around the world. As support divers, they had a near enough encounter with divers and critters alike to relate their experiences. Gaia Discovery was a proud media partner of the event.

Singapore, 15 November 2010. “Untouched, unexplored, unbelievable”.  That was the description of underwater Timor-Leste promised by the country’s President Jose Ramos-Horta.  A self-confessed non-diver himself, none-the-less, he has a keen awareness of one of his nascent country’s crown jewels.

1st in Portfolio: Lim Kay Burn

1st in Clingers: EunJae Im

When my husband Michael Smith and I decided to attend the inaugural Timor-Leste Dive Photo Contest (10-14 October 2010) as Gaia Discovery writer and photographer as well as to act as support divers, we were unsure what to expect.  We had been diving in the seas around Timor once before, but wondered what it would be like with at least 70 divers in the water simultaneously spread over the ten allowed dive sites. 

Despite the colorful and healthy reefs around the shore near Dili, the only two dive shops in the country usually host no more than a dozen or two divers on a good weekend. How would they handle more than 30 published underwater photographers as well as an equal number of well-heeled support divers?

We flew Air Timor from Singapore and landed at Dili’s airport the day before the competition and were transferred to the Timor Lodge Hotel – the contest’ headquarters.   Photographers from various countries checked in about the same time, and they arrived from Indonesia, Singapore, the UK, America, Australia, Italy, Korea, Denmark and Hong Kong. There was only one participant from Timor Leste.

1st in Crawlers: Dewi Wilaisono

A brief to competitors included a reminder of the purpose of the competition.  The dive photo contest was part of a program to showcase Timor-Leste’s tremendous scuba diving potential and promote its marine-based tourism to the world.  A personal initiative of the President, the contest was a means to educate Timorese on the environment, biodiversity and many marine-based opportunities that the pristine waters of Timor could offer. 

Sean Ferguson-Borrell, the competition organizer and assistant to the President said that all the submitted photos would be used to help educate the people of Timor about a part of their country that they often do not think of.  “If we show them the beauty of the underwater world, they will be less likely to spoil the environment with litter or waste,” he said.

On the eve of the competition, photographers were treated to a helicopter tour of the northern shoreline to scope out the dive sites.  The organizers chose ten dive sites from about 30 explored sites on the main island for the competition. These selected spots provide a variety of marine life and terrain. 

President's Choice Dwellers: Ina Varella Bradridege

According to Marianne Woodward, General Manager of Dive Timor Lorosae, “We have only scratched the surface of available dive sites.  Everywhere where the northern coastal road is close to the sea, we have dived there and found beautiful new sites.  We don’t have a regular boat capable of exploring the shores closer to the cliffs where there is no access from the road and we avoid the southern coast because of the crocodiles!”

1st in Swimmers: Hendra Tan

The sites chosen for the competition provided a microcosm of the varied dive sites on the main island.  Great macro photography was available closer to Dili such as at Pertamina Pier, Dili Rock and Tasi Tolu.  Among the shallow rubble on these dives, photographers found rare critters such as weedy scorpionfish, leafy scorpionfish, blue-ring octopus, thorny seahorses, Halimeda ghost pipefish, ornate ghost pipefish, banded pipefish, frogfish, Ambon shrimps, shrimp gobies and mantis shrimp.  At Tasi Tolu you may emerge from the water nearly bumping into a dugong or sea cow, as I did.

The deeper dive sites east of Dili generally had large vistas and walls that were better for wide-angle photography.  Sites such as Lone Tree offered the added bonus of potential whale sightings. 

Later in the day, at the official opening ceremony, the children of Ba Furtura and the Maritime College treated us to a traditional dance.  Ba Furtura is a local non-profit development organization dedicated to improving the chances of a peaceful future for the children of Timor.

After a welcome dinner, the final piece of the organization took place and gave the photographers’ nerves a reminder that the competition would be fierce and full of pressure.  Support divers were chosen at random and assigned to them.  The few local experienced guides were obviously coveted over the newer divers and those who were also doing their maiden dives in Timor.

2nd in Artistic: Ivan Choong

According to one of the judges, Jürgen Freund (an international freelance nature photographer associated with the World Wide Fund for Nature), “The pressure on the photographers in this type of competition is intense.  In other photo competitions, the photographers just send in some of the best shots from their portfolio that fit the event’s categories.  In an underwater shoot-out such as this, photographers have to capture and process their photographs in a limited time and location.”

2nd in Clingers: Kandis Senidang

Another judge, Jason Isley (founder of Scubazoo), also pointed out that this event chose to differentiate itself from the norm.  Instead of awarding prizes for the common categories of wide angle and macro shots, the categories to be judged included Creepers, Clingers, Swimmers, Dwellers, Artistic and Portfolio.  In addition, the President was awarding one prize in each category for his own choice of favorites.

The other judges for the competition included Daniel Groshong (professional photographer and founder of the Hummingfish Foundation), Jonathan Meur (Editor of Asian Diver magazine) and Wayne Lovell (former international journalist and founder of Timor’s oldest dive shop).

Daniel, also a key organiser of the event, explained the distinctive approach that the contest had taken. “We wanted to tailor the contest to fit Timor and what it has to offer.  I also wanted to keep the categories open enough to allow for as much creativity as possible. Photographers could then express their creative vision rather then just try to fit into rigid categories.  Hence, nothing like ‘macro’ or ‘wide angle’,” said Daniel.

Kandis Sekidang hooks both President's Choice and the 3rd Prize in Swimmers category.

“I just wanted to keep the event unique, memorable and uniquely Timor,” he added, having spent time exploring and photographing the newly independent nation for more than 10 years. Daniel had in 2006 produced a coffee table book documenting the country’s land and underwater attractions with his own photography.

1st in Artistic: Ronny Rengkung

Competitors acknowledged the added pressure of the shoot-out style competition.  Participant Gilbert Woolley from England said, “Every dive needs to count.  With limited minutes underwater for shooting, I don’t have time for anything other that looking for critters or figuring out how to take the best photos of them”. 

Korean Eun Jae Im concurred saying, “I didn’t have time to really enjoy the dive sites but I will definitely return to Timor.  The reefs and marine life here are fantastic and Timor makes an interesting side trip from Bali.” 

1st in Dwellers: Ronny Rengkung

Dewi Wilaisono from Indonesia went further to say, “I plan to organize a trip here for friends.  They will not believe how easy and nice the diving is until they see my photos.  There are also beautiful places in around Dili and in the mountains that are just waiting to be explored.” 

Most importantly, the photographers agreed that the logistics of the event were handled well and the number of divers at any one site never caused serious issues.

What was my verdict for the competition?  Based on the stated goals, it was a major success.  President Ramos-Horta sung the praises of the portfolio of photos now collected for use in promoting the industry and educating the Timorese. 

Daniel and Jason agreed that the quality of photos was on par with other competitions around the region.  All of the photographers enjoyed the event.  Their only complaint could not be helped - it was the unusual wet weather that caused the closure of several dive sites one afternoon. 

Regarding the organization, safety was always a primary concern.  Dive marshals were posted at every site to give advice on the local conditions as well as to provide first aid and communications support.  Each photographer and support diver team had use of a microlet van, driver and assistant to get to dive sites.  This helped to ensure a more even distribution of divers over the available sites and dive times.

2nd in Swimmers: Dewi Wilaisono

The competition culminated with the awards ceremony on 15 October at the President’s Residence or Dili’s Palacio Lahane.  President Ramos-Horta thanked not only the photographers but also all who supported the event and contributed to its success.

Cash prizes and medals were awarded for each category with first place worth US$2,500, second place US$1,000 and third place worth US$500.  The President’s choice award for each category was HK$10,000 Canon vouchers (worth about US$1,300) and a commemorative medal.

2nd in Portfolio: Gilbert Woolley

I could only echo his final comment that his wish is that the photo competition would become an annual event.  Although only a support diver, I felt that I was fully immersed in the competition, interacting with the photographers, judges and organizers.  I met many new friends and learned much about underwater photography as well as the competitor’s most important attribute – patience. 

I hope it is not the last time I get to watch a grown man court a little pink Christmas tree worm.

Results of the Winners of the first Timor-Leste Photo Dive Contest 2010

From left: Ivan Choong, Dewi Wilaisono & Lim Kay Burn. Photo by EunJae Im.

Category: Clingers

1st – EunJae Im, Republic of Korea

2nd – Kandis Semidang, Indonesia

3rd – Peter Teagle, England

President’s Choice – Kandis Semidang, Indonesia

Timor-Leste dive photo contest participants.

Category: Crawlers

1st – Dewi Wilaisono, Indonesia

2nd – Gilbert Woolley, England

3rd – Ricky Rusli Kurniawan, Indonesia

President’s Choice – Brian Francisco, United States

Category: Dwellers

1st – Ronny Rengkung, Indonesia

2nd – Ricky Rusli Kurniawan, Indonesia

3rd – Louisa Butler, England

President’s Choice – Ina Varella Bradridege, Timor-Lest

Category: Swimmers

1st – Hendra Tan, Indonesia

2nd – Dewi Wilaisono, Indonesia

3rd – Kandis Semidang, Indonesia

President’s Choice – Kandis Semidang, Indonesia

Category: Artistic

1st – Ronny Rengkung, Indonesia

2nd – Ivan Choong, Singapore

3rd – Ricky Rusli Kurniawan, Indonesia

Category: Portfolio

1st – Lim Kay Burn, Australia

2nd – Gilbert Woolley, England

3rd – David Baxter, Australia

President’s Choice – Kandis Semidang, Indonesia

Gaia Discovery thanks the sponsors Air Timor, Timor Lodge, Dive Timor Lorosae, Freeflow Diving, the President of Timor-Leste and the organisers of the contest for making this article possible.

About the Contributors

Melanie and Michael Smith have been diving for over 20 years. Michael is a scuba diving instructor with White Manta Diving while Melanie is completing her dive master course. They enjoy land-based and dive travel to places off the beaten track, which provides its own rewards. How many people can say they were diving in the Lembeh Straits before there were resorts there and diving on the Seven Skies wreck before it rusted?  In their out of the way travels, they have also met the king of Ladakh, king of Maubese and the last prince of Bali. Melanie and Michael also enjoy dancing in the rain. Contact them at msmith_sg AT yahoo DOT com.