Timor Leste: The New Coral Kingdom
Like traveling back in time. Corals upon corals upon corals.
I came across a recently published marine science paper that stopped me dead in my tracks. A group of marine biologist have just declared a coral reef off the coast of Timor Leste the most biodiverse on the planet, by a factor of nearly 20%. Excuse me? Timor what? I’m a pretty darn well traveled photographer and this one had escaped me. After a little research I found out that they are the youngest country in Asia, declaring their independence from Indonesia in 2003. I knew right away that I needed to photograph this place. After calling all my favorite underwater photographers and asking about the diving there, I got the same response, “Never heard of it. Never been.” I had my tickets booked that day.
I joined some good friends out of an environmental protection agency in Washington DC who was also interested in the new published findings and we flew into the capitol city of Dili for a week of photographing and research into how the reef is being managed and what is needed to help foster and protect it.
Dili as a rich and beauty city with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Still scared from a very violent and oppressive invasion and occupation that lasted 15 years they are moving on with peace in their hearts and a new outlook on their island way of life. The interesting thing about conflict countries is that most return to conflict, shortly after any stab at democracy or independence. But Timor and its people are changing the mold and it’s so inspiring to see.
I’m about to jump off the boat for my few days on Atauro Island, everything I need, give dear, camera housing, etc packed into one weatherproof bag.
After a few days adjusting in Dili we charted a boat to take us diving at the coral reefs that had lured us halfway across the world. They were located off the nearby island of Atauro. Once we arrive into the lagoon we were awes truck by the crystal clear waters and bountiful coral heads just under the surface of the water. We jumped in and were taken to a world that I only dreamt existed. It was truly like going back in time to a pristine coral reef untouched by the hands of time.
We met with local islanders and began discussing management plans for the island and how to preserve the reefs and leverage eco-tourism to help fund its protection. Before I left I got one more dive in at sunset and remember thinking how lucky I was to be here.
It’s hard to know where to point your eyes when the reef is this healthy. I love watching the little fish find refuge in these larger coral heads.
I spent my final days in Dili, meeting with government officials and previous presidents, learning more about the country’s and natural history and where they go from here. I touched base with the local art community to find them still painting and telling the story of the resistance which reminded me how recent it actually was for people.
The best trips end up being the ones that are less-planned and put into motion by one single spark, for me “Earth’s most biodiverse Reef” was the catalyst but the trip ended being so much more about the people how how one of the world’s youngest countries becomes a beacon of hope and marine management. It’s places like this that I can truly lend a hand with my photographs and find purpose in my journey.
The future of conservation. Local kids bringing in the boats after a day of fishing.
By Andy Mann on June 1, 2019
For over a decade, Andy has been a forerunner in the world of adventure film and conservation photography. He is an experienced climber, diver, arctic explorer and award-winning filmmaker whose imagery is helping tell the story of our rapidly changing planet, documenting expeditions on all 7 continents for National Geographic Magazine, Sea Legacy, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, Wildlife Conservation Society and more. His imagery is remarkably memorable, reminding us how the emotion of an image can touch our spirit.