These two and a half weeks in East Timor have been the busiest and most fulfilling of my graduate career to date. My team and I have surveyed over 4,500 corals over 24 dives in Dili, Ataúro Island, and Be’e Hau Bay. Field work in a developing country presents a myriad of challenges, but it is also a privilege to be allowed to work on these reefs. Acquiring permits requires lots of back and forth with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and, although time-consuming, provides an opportunity to interact with government officials - who were invaluable during this process. Sharing and communicating data with government is important and I was able to present the preliminary data from our surveys to MAF.
Additionally, this trip has given me a better understanding of how the Timorese interact with the ocean: people gleaning the reef flat at low tide, children splashing through the surf, and locals selling fish by the harbor road. This human context around Timorese marine resources is important and can save or destroy coral reefs as we know them.
It has been incredibly dry during our stay in Dili. The mountains are a dusty red with barren trees that dot the landscape. It has been predicted to remain dry through early next year which is mirroring other El Niño weather patterns across the globe. An El Niño (Spanish for Christ child because it occurs around Christmas) is a complex weather phenomena that is characterized by unusually warm water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Past El Niño events have triggered mass coral bleaching. The third ever global coral bleaching event was recently announced by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and will continue through the next year. To this end, we deployed 8 temperature loggers at the sites surveyed which will be recording temperature measurements every 30 minutes for the next several months. This environmental data will be invaluable during this El Niño event. We will have to wait and see how the corals fare.
This trip would not have been possible without my team, Dominic and Craig, and generous support from the XL Catlin Seaview Survey and the Society of Conservation Biology Marine Section small grants.