Local Timorese fisherman alongside a melon-headed dolphin off Atauro Island, Timor-Leste (Photo credit - Karen Edyvane)
In the aftermath of Timor-Leste's recent parliamentary elections, one of the biggest issues remains the economy's heavy dependence on dwindling oil and gas revenues. Yet this young nation could potentially benefit from another rich, offshore economic resource - its abundance of whales and dolphins.
Around the world, whale and dolphin watching is recognised as one of fastest growing marine industries and tourism sectors, particularly among small island, developing nations in Asia and the Pacific. And currently embraces a diverse range of ‘niche’ ecotourism activities from whale watching and swim-dive tourism, to research and underwater photography cruise safari’s.
In 2008, approximately 13 million people undertook whale and dolphin watching-related activities in 119 countries - generating $2.1 billion in total expenditure. If developed sustainably, it holds enormous long-term economic potential for Timor-Leste, particularly for poor coastal communities.
Yet with the industry's continued growth comes the need for policies, regulations and funding support, to ensure it grows responsibly.
Sea kayaking with humpback whales in Alaska – a 'niche’ cetacean ecotourism experience Timor-Leste is hoping to emulate (Photo credit - John Hyde/Alamy Images)
Nestled in the western Pacific's Coral Triangle, the epicentre of global marine biodiversity, Timor-Leste is perfectly placed for marine ecotourism.
It has uncrowded, white sandy beaches; clear and unpolluted waters; and safe and easily accessible coral reefs. Its marine biodiversity is also extraordinary – with its coral reefs recognised as globally significant. And its waters blessed with an abundance and diversity of whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife.
Our recent research assessments have highlighted the potential for coastal and marine ecotourism, particularly whale and dolphin watching, and Timor-Leste's fledgling ecotourism industry is rapidly gaining a reputation for world-class SCUBA diving and whale watching.
Uncrowded seas, high cetacean abundance and a diversity of species, provide outstanding opportunities for world-class niche cetacean tourism in Timor-Leste (Photo credit – Aaron Gekoski/Scubazoo)
Global cetacean 'hotspot'
Our research first identified Timor-Leste as a global "hotspot" for marine mammals in 2008 - reporting record concentrations of animals. In a single day of observations, we recorded more than 1,000 individual animals and 10 species along just 50km of coast.
Resident populations of cetaceans provide excellent opportunities for year-round, swim-dive tourism (Photo credit – Joe Sharman)
Evidence suggests that the deep waters off Timor-Leste’s coast are also a major migratory route for marine mammals, as well as other ocean-going marine wildlife, such as sharks, rays and turtles. As such, two deep oceanic trenches either side of Timor-Leste carry an estimated 80% of the Indonesian Throughflow, the major current system that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
These deep waters (up to 3km depth), very close to shore (sometimes less than 200m from land) - particularly along the narrow, Ombai-Wetar Strait on the island's north coast - make Timor-Leste perfect for watching passing whales.
A majestic pygmy blue whale swims close to shore, in the deep waters off Timor-Leste (Photo credit - Matthew Barbour)
Since 2012, our systematic surveys, community-based reporting, and monitoring by local dive tour operators, eco-volunteers and local fishing communities have confirmed the region's status as a global dolphin and whale hotspot.
At least 24 cetacean species have now been confirmed as living in or passing through Timor-Leste’s waters. Among them are baleen whales, toothed whales, killer whales, and ‘superpods’ of large and small dolphins. The list includes some of world’s largest and most threatened whale species, including the ‘Vulnerable’ Sperm Whale.
Sperm whale fluking in the Ombai Strait, off the north coast of Timor-Leste (Photo credit - Karen Edyvane)
Best blue whale watching in the world !
One of the most common, regular visitors to Timor-Leste’s waters is the pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda), known to local fishers as parawu ina, or "blowing whale".
A subspecies of the Endangered blue whale these whales were targeted by whaling operations during the 20th century. Despite their name, pygmy blues can grow up to 24m in length and can be regularly seen off Timor-Leste during their long annual migration between their nearby tropical calving grounds and their southerly feeding grounds off Australia and Antarctica.
The Ombai –Wetar Strait along the north coast of Timor is particularly narrow, with very deep water close to shore - sometimes <100m offshore. Perfect for watching passing cetaceans.
During the whale season, it has become common for locals and visitors to the capital city of Dili, to watch passing blue whales from the comfort of beachside cafés and restaurants.
The annual pygmy blue whale migration closely follows the shoreline of Timor-Leste, including off the capital city of Dili, affording excellent sea and land-based viewing (Photo credit - Chris Burton)
With a large number of animals occurring so close to shore, we suggest that Timor-Leste is one of the best and most accessible places in the world to view and monitor pygmy blue whales. Regular pods of sperm whales and several resident nearshore dolphin species also provide significant potential for ecotourism and ongoing research.
Untapped potential – until now
It is little surprise, then, that interest in whale watching is growing rapidly in Timor-Leste. Last year the Ministry of Tourism began promoting dedicated whale and dolphin tours, alongside local tourism authorities and the individual tour operators that have begun tours over the past five years or so.
Importantly, Timor-Leste's small but growing marine ecotourism industry also holds great economic potential for the many poor coastal communities that currently rely on subsistence farming and fishing. With high value but low environmental impact, 'niche' ecotourism activities, such as whale and dolphin watching, can deliver much-needed income and local employment, while also helping to relieve the fishing pressure on nearby reefs.
Eco-volunteers are assisting researchers to monitor cetaceans in the Ombai Strait, off Timor-Leste (Photo credit - Blue Ventures)
Working with a range of tourism partners (including UNWTO, The Asia Foundation, Charles Darwin University, Blue Ventures, WWF-Pacific, and the Pacific Asia Travel Association), Timor-Leste is aiming to differentiate itself in the highly competitive Southeast Asia tourism market, by focusing on small-scale, community-based tourism niches such as "adventure tourism" and "eco-voluntourism".
This approach is already bringing significant local economic benefits, as shown by the growing number of eco-lodges and village homestays and marine eco-volunteers on the island of Atauro, some 24km offshore from the capital, Dili. With year-round cetacean populations, whale and dolphin watching has become a popular activity for eco-volunteers and tourists to the island.
Whale and dolphin watching has become a popular tourist activity for visitors and eco-volunteers on Atauro Island (Photo credit - Karen Edyvane)
How can other countries help ?
Timor-Leste needs help to develop a sustainable marine tourism industry and safeguard its whales and dolphins. Australia, with its recognised global leadership in marine mammal research and management, its influence with the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and its expertise in ecotourism management in places like the Great Barrier Reef, Australia has plenty to offer. Similarly, countries like New Zealand, have a long history of world-class cetacean tourism and research.
Several activities pose major potential threats to cetaceans. In addition to its rich oil and gas reserves, Timor-Leste lies next to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and is also experiencing growing levels of illegal foreign fishing.
Despite its global significance as a cetacean hotspot, Timor-Leste is not a formal member of the IWC. It urgently needs scientific support to understand, conserve and manage its whales and dolphins. For the majestic pygmy blue whale, which migrates annually between the waters of Australia and Timor-Leste, such support and sharing of knowledge could be a great symbol of cooperation between 2 neighbouring countries.