Diving in Atauro… the world’s most biodiverse reef

These past few years I can hardly complain that I get a bum deal in terms of where I live for work. A few months ago I applied for a post in Timor Leste. A tiny island nation at the far end of the Indonesian archipelago (and to my embarrassment I had to look up on the map).

Although I was prepared to go diving over the 5 months I’m due to be here, I was blissfully unaware of is the newly found status of Atauro Island. Clearly I missed the article in The Guardian on the subject of it’s new found status of world’s most diverse waters. The dive sites around the island are home to at least 642 species with a maximum of 314 in a single site. The previous record for species spotted, on average, per site was in West Papua at 216. Around Atauro Island the average is 253 reef fish species, a full 20% more diverse than the last record holder. Such a rich fauna includes very rare and possibly new species. And all of this is on my front door!

To really rub it in, the waters between the islands are jam packed with whales and dolphins. Even on the trip back from the island we spotted dozens of Pilot Whales, Pigmy Orcas (a rare species that I didn’t even know existed) along with tiny babies, and a pod of dolphins splashing around off the beach. Peak season for the whales is in September/October/November. July also touts some action worth coming for. Sadly, overfishing has noticeably dwindled pelagic species, with large fish, such as travalis, emperors, barracuda, tuna, as well as groupers and parrotfish are missing.

Before you go green from envy, it’s not entirely difficult to get here, but do it soon before the crowds really close in. There are essentially two dive operations in Dili, and one on the island. There are a number of cheap flights each week from Dempesar (Bali), as well as more expensive ones from Darwin and Singapore (about 4 times the price), but they’re daily.

Accommodation isn’t that cheap ($45/night plus) as it is in most parts of South East Asia, nor is diving (unless you have your own transport and know where the dive sites along the coast of the main island are). On Atauro, prices are similar for accommodation but diving is cheaper (as there are significantly less transport costs). Getting there involves a charter speed boat, or the government ferry that goes once a week (Saturdays, retuning the same day) from Dili.  Barry’s Place cover’s the bases in terms of contacts and details.  All i would add is that the terrifyingly named (to match it’s condition and sea-worthiness) Dragon Boat, is not recommended (it’s a bit of a floating coffin in the case it capsizes).  It’s designed as a river boat.. and from all accounts they seem structurally precarious.  All I’d say is just make sure you arrange your return before leaving as getting back seems a lot less scheduled than going.

For my first trip, I took the option of going with Dive Timor Lorosae. There were 6 of us and one instructor/guide. Leaving at around 7:45/8am from the harbour it took about 70/80mins to get to the western side of the island, given the flat calm conditions. First dive of the day was on Frank’s Crack… snickering only highlights your deprived mind. The site was, as described, a geological crack in the igneous rock that runs about 5m from the surface and can be swam along to a depth of about 10m… until it opens out to the coral wall that plunges to 40m plus, and again to 100’s of metres to the sea floor (which at it’s deepest point is at least 3500m between the island and Dili!).

So when you come across corals and sponges that look like they could consume you, ones mind starts to explode and you’re dazzled by the shear diversity of non-fishiness that surrounds you.  With my video light on the colours started to explode into life and what you thought was more than enough to cope with really overloads your mind.  There are some sad tell-tale signs of bleaching (my conservation and climate plea – it is not choice, it’s a requirement).  Despite this I’m sold… I had to return for more.

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Barrel Sponges you could hide in… Barracuda Cove (western side of Atauro)

The next two trips (jeez… I’m not going to earn any money at this rate!) I used the Compass water taxi service (and a return on the MV Atauro) and stayed at the Atauro Dive Resort.  For return water taxi, two nights stay (sharing), including meals, two boat dives, and one shore dive (only with my buddy) I paid a little south of $300 USD.  It would have been only slightly more if I’d done some more shore diving with my buddy.

 

The waters are magical, with a dive in Manta Cove (what manta?!) proving, once again, that I hadn’t seen even the most beautiful parts of the island up to that point.  Diving in the shallows of the house reef also produced a fascinating revelation of the little things.  Hundreds of juvenile fish from so many species (from the adorable long-nosed butterflyfish, to the cutest of anemone fish).  Sea slugs, nudibranch, monstrous spearing mantis shrimp (upwards of 25cm long), flatworms (as seen in the featured image – which is actually my most favourite photo to date, pretty much).  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  You can buy them there (if you get very excited) and license them for use from me (copyright requires you to ask permission, even if there’s a watermark).

I have many more little stories attached to even these last three trips that I want to share, but I’ll leave it for another time.  For now I’ll let you go green with envy, or leave you inspired to come and see for yourself!

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