The team has spent the last two days at Atauro Island, north of Timor Leste. Before departing to Timor Leste, I had read about Atauro Island being an environmental jewel for the country, with low amounts of human influence and cultural traditions strongly maintained. I am happy to say, the Island and its coral reefs lived up to their expectations.
On day one we completed three scientific transects on the southern side of the Island in front of the township of Beloi. The currents were strong but the SVII powered through and completed the day’s work by surveying the Island’s southern reefs. The biggest surprise came during the third transect of the day which started right in front of the islands main harbor’s port and starboard markers. The reef was a stunning slope of terraced tabulate corals (Acropora spp) going all the way down to the start of the reefs wall at 12 metres. We were greeted by a large school of very big bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometapon muricatum) half way through the transect.
Unfortunately because of strong wind conditions we were forced to sail back to Dili so our mother ship, the Sundancer NT, could find safe anchorage for the night. We came back to Atauro Island in the early hours of the morning to complete our mission of surveying the Islands northern reefs which were sheltered from the wind. Pete and our newest recruit, Catlin Oceans Scholar Veronica Radice completed the first dive in front of a small village in Biqueli provence. The village was nestled in front of a lush green valley and upon surfacing from the dive Pete and Veronica were cheered on by a large group of children eagerly watching our SVII retrieval from the shore.
The next transect was completed by Kristen Brown and myself, the reef we saw was truly spectacular. The majority of the reef was made up of huge Diploastrea heliopora and Porites spp mounds, joining each other as far as the eye can see. It was almost like diving in a futuristic city made up of golden, red and purple buildings, with colorful reef fish hovering around the highly complex environment completing their everyday tasks. As I was driving SVII, I felt the weight of responsibility increase to make sure the images were taken correctly, not only for scientific purposes, but also so that people around the world can see the value of these incredibly isolated environments.
Atauro Island faces development in the future under Timor Leste’s strategic development plan. Thankfully many of these plans focus around eco-tourism and the implementation of large marine protected areas around the Island in order to conserve the natural environment. The shallow reef team is now enroute to the western enclave of Oecussse, another area which faces large developments including a big port. We are lucky enough to be sureying the site before these developments occur in this largely unmonitored area.