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Timor-Leste is coming of age, and has learnt from Sri Lanka’s mistakes

Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, is one of the world’s great ocean destinations

Looking out from Wata Bo’o beach, I saw a calm blue sea, the water unruffled, disrupted only intermittently by the splash of a leaping silvery fish. This serene tropical outpost, a thousand miles east of Bali, felt like it might have always been like this. Except the beach has had a troubled history. The Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and most recently, the Indonesians, battled over it. With mass atrocities in living memory – they only gained independence from Indonesia 21 years ago – the focus here is on survival and rebuilding the country, rather than attracting tourists. So far? Few come.

But that might be about to change. The word is out that the North shore of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, might be one of the world’s great ocean destinations, part of a marine migration superhighway with blue whales, sperm whales, fin whales, orcas, pilot whales, false killer whales, whale sharks, melon-headed whales, oceanic manta rays and more. Could this largely forgotten new nation – actually half an island (the other half of Timor belongs to Indonesia) – hold all of this?

I landed in the sleepy, dusty capital Dili, which was more seaside town than bustling port. Dili is the only place in the country with decent infrastructure; elsewhere, facilities are limited, public transport unreliable and there are few places to stay. It feels like the Southeast Asia of old where cultural traditions persist in the villages and beaches are empty, sometimes surreally so, such as at Dollar Beach, once a popular spot for aid workers, where there are now abandoned swimming pools and a fountain in the shape of a flip-flop.

I drove a few hours east through a rough rocky landscape with sheer coastal mountains falling into the sea, fringed by beaches and reefs. There was little traffic. Sporadic roadside vendors sold small plastic bottles of fuel, ripe papaya and green coconuts. Kids waved, as they still do here.

A colourful grocery shop in East Timor, Asia
The capital Dili is more like a sleepy seaside town than a bustling port - Alamy

I was heading to the second town of Baucau in the shadow of Matebian, the sacred Mountain of Spirits and a longtime stronghold of resistance fighters. With a dilapidated colonial feel, Baucau apparently had only two hotels, one not accepting bookings and the other not yet open but willing to put me up. It felt like the country might struggle to keep up with any uptick in visitors, at least in the short term.

It turned out, I wasn’t the only one checking out the rumours about the marine life here. Also renting rooms happened to be some of the world’s best underwater photographers and filmmakers – whose work airs on the BBC, Netflix and National Geographic – weighed down by long-lens cameras, drones and hydrophones. It felt like we might be onto something.

By my side was Bafta-winning cameraman Patrick Dykstra who, between filming, regularly scouts for whale destinations for tour operator Natural World Safaris. He told me that until recently, the best place to swim with blue whales was Sri Lanka, but now they haven’t shown up for four or five years.

North coast of Timor Leste
Timor-Leste is fringed by beaches and reefs - Will Bolsover

“Some put down their disappearance to climate change, its effect on currents and sea temperatures,” he said. “But it was also an unregulated industry with way too many boats and some operators really harassing the animals.”

On our first day, we drove down a winding track to a sandy beach, waded out at low tide to a launch and then motored out into a sea so deep-blue it was almost navy. There wasn’t another boat nor fisherman in sight; it was as if we had the ocean to ourselves. As luck would have it, within a few minutes of leaving shore, we spotted a pod of 40 pilot whales. We navigated the boat ahead of their path and I slid into the water off the back ladder. Hanging below the waterline, immersed in this otherworldliness, I confess I barely caught the blur of the whales racing past.

The next day, we headed out at first light. Hour upon hour, we scanned the expanse of ocean for a tail fluke or a blow, listening for clicks and whistles with a hydrophone. The ocean can play tricks on you, disrupting your balance, disorienting you with its lack of landmarks and endless sameness. I saw nothing stir. Maybe a flying fish, maybe a fin, maybe neither.

Back at the ad hoc hotel, I spoke with underwater photographer Shawn Heinrichs, who’d already been here several weeks. “It’s a game of patience and persistence,” he consoled me. “The exciting part is you have the possibility of the largest animals ever to grace the planet popping up. Timor-Leste really has a unique marine corridor. To find all these species in one place is unprecedented.”

Credit some of the most powerful movements of water on the planet, a current that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans on a zig-zag through the archipelagoes of Indonesia and the Philippines. Astonishingly, 80 per cent of that water whizzes north past Timor. The sea is dramatically deep just offshore, several kilometres down, with underwater rocky shelves generating upwellings and pushing up nutrients, giving rise to feeding and migrating bottlenecks.

These could hardly be more perfect conditions for cetaceans and pelagics, and also for anyone wanting to swim with them. On my third and final day, we saw a pod of 100 false killer whales, with a lone bottlenose dolphin among them. Although we tried to keep up, they outpaced us and the ocean swell was too rough for our little boat.

There are many variables on these kinds of trips, like weather, climate change and an unfolding El Niño. There’s also luck, of course, which might depend on perspective. I got lucky, even if I missed out on the biggest cetaceans. The week before I arrived, there were sperm whales. The week after, blue whales came through. It’s hard to ace timing when you’re dealing with migratory species.

President of the Marine Tourism Association of Timor-Leste, marine ecologist Karen Edyvade has established a field station near Dili, in cooperation with the National University of Timor-Leste and Charles Darwin University in Australia. “Ten years ago we knew almost nothing about what was going on in these tropical waters,” she said. “Now we’ve got amazing data sets, especially for blues and sperms.”

Whales in East Timor
The Marine Tourism Association of Timor-Leste is collecting data on whales that visit its tropical waters - Patrick Dykstra

Shortly after I left, we spoke by phone and Karen’s team had recorded 12 blue whale sightings that day, and eight the previous day. “It proves the country can move towards ecotourism and away from an economy almost entirely dependent on oil revenues.”

One night, after a day at sea, I was offered the chance to interview the President of the country, José Ramos-Horta, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1990s and survived an attempted assassination attempt a dozen years later taking a bullet to the stomach. I drove a few hours east to the town of Com and found him midway through dinner at a makeshift beach camp, wearing a Harley Davidson jacket, hosting old friends who were exploring the country by campervan.

Ramos-Horta is a storyteller and a joker; he regaled me about his first job manning a tourism kiosk at Baucau airport, about carbon credits, post-conflict reconciliation, fibre optic cables, COP28 and how scared he is of sharks. However, when we turned our attention to Timor’s oceans, he became serious.

“I’m 100 per cent ready to support the protection of our marine environment, to prevent further damage,” he said, before adding resignedly: “But I’ve been talking for years about a joint maritime security policy with Australia and Indonesia, and they just drag it on.” There are political differences inevitably, but don’t dismiss the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Fisherman, Timor Leste
Some locals are moving away from industries such as fishing to branch into tourism - Will Bolsover

My boat driver, Ricardo Marquez, said he and others are banking on his country making some good choices, as they themselves leave subsistence fishing and farming for tourism; they aim to become boat operators, and open homestays and eateries. “But I do worry the whales are going to leave,” he told me. “We’ve been talking for a long time about how to manage operations but we still have no regulations.”

“What we need is training and accreditation,” Karen Edyvade reiterated. “Right now anyone can jump in a boat and swim next to a whale, no minimum distance required. Sri Lanka got it wrong. We cannot get it wrong.”

Meantime, the Caribbean island of Dominica is being held up as a beacon of hope in sustainable marine tourism. Last month, the country announced a 300-square-mile marine protected area for sperm whales, a world’s first. Patrick Dykstra was instrumental in making this happen. “I hope Timor-Leste will do something like this,” he said. “My hunch is it can.”

Essentials

Michelle Jana Chan travelled as a guest of Natural World Safaris (01273 691642; naturalworldsafaris.com) which offers an seven-night marine safari to East Timor from £6,200 per person sharing, including accommodation, meals, most drinks, airport transfers to/from Dili Airport and six days whale-watching in a private boat with an expert marine guide.