The island of Timor has a long history of conflict and colonial rule, dating to the early 16th century. Portuguese and Dutch ships arrived in what was then the East Indies, looking for outlets in the incredibly lucrative spice trade. Today, the scuba diving in Timor Leste is some of the world’s best.
History of Timor-Leste
The European colonialists divided the island in half, with the Dutch occupying the western half, known as Dutch Timor. It became Indonesian Timor in 1949 and part of Indonesia. The Portuguese occupied East Timor, known as Portuguese Timor, until 1975. Political turmoil and a coup d’état in Lisbon forced the Portuguese to suddenly pack up and leave the territory after 455 years of colonial rule.
Declaring itself independent on November 28, 1975, as the Democratic Republic of East Timor, neighboring Indonesia invaded and annexed the country just nine days later. Another 24 years of often brutal colonial rule followed. The end of Indonesia’s Suharto era ultimately led to self-determination and the appointment of charismatic former guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao as President, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ramos-Horta as Prime Minister of a newly independent Republic of Timor-Leste in 2002.
The people of Timor-Leste paid a heavy price to achieve self-rule. An estimated 200,000 people died during the 24 years the country was the disputed 27th province of Indonesia. There are 16 different ethnic groups and it’s one of only two Roman Catholic countries in Asia — the Philippines being the other. While oil and gas reserves hold the promise of a brighter future, Timor-Leste remains among Asia’s poorest countries.
Timor-Leste sits at the eastern end of the chain of islands called the Lesser Sundas, which form the southern boundary of the huge Indonesian archipelago. To the north are the deep basins of the Banda Sea and the rich waters of the Indonesian Throughflow, the largest volume of flowing water in the world and the life-source of the famed Coral Triangle.
Those waters, rich with nutrients from the Banda basins, sweep along the north coast of Timor. This means two things — big currents and the chance for some great diving. Add to the rich waters that recreational scuba diving simply did not exist in Timor-Leste until independence, so the known dives sites are simply a fraction of what remains for discovery.
Scuba Diving in Timor Leste
We can break down the scuba diving in Timor-Leste into four areas, starting with those in and around the capital of Dili. Next are the coastal locations up to two hours’ drive to the east and west of Dili; the large island of Atauro to the north of Dili; and the smaller, uninhabited island of Jaco at the far eastern tip of the country.
There are three main sites in Dili, all shore dives: the Pertamina Jetty near the center of the city, Tasi Tolu on the western outskirts, and nearby Dili Rock. Pertamina Jetty and Tasi Tolu are muck/critter sites, while Dili Rock offers a mixture of critters and coral gardens.
Tasi Tolu enjoys a somewhat legendary status both as Timor-Leste’s version of Lembeh Strait. This is rather overstating the situation though, as it’s just one site — albeit a very good one. It owes its existence as a dive site to the direct intervention of the country’s President.
Tasi Tolu takes its name from the three freshwater lakes just below the nearby foothills, which fill to capacity during the rainy season and then overflow, flooding the roads and villages in the area. To prevent this, the government commissioned a project to install a drainage channel so that the overflow could run off into the sea. The subsequent design that took the most logical path would have dumped the outflow right on to the Tasi Tolu site. The local diving community waged a campaign to get the drainage channel relocated and ultimately got the attention of Timor-Leste’s then-president, Ramos Horta. Seeing tourism as part of the potential solution to a lack of employment opportunities, President Horta stopped the project.
East and west of Dili
There are numerous shore dives heading east from Dili, reachable via short paths from the main road. All the sites have sheltered entries. This means getting into the water is easy, and exposure to the strong currents of the Ombai Strait is gradual and manageable.
Some standout sites are Secret Garden, Marble Rock and One Tree. Secret Garden takes top honors for its small but superb sponge garden, resident colonies of photogenic purple anthias and silvery glass fish.
There are two main dive areas to the west of Dili, Bubble Beach and the picturesque town of Maubara. Divers consider Bubble Beach one of the best dives in Timor-Leste, but shore access is unfortunately no longer possible. The area has been fenced off, as the “bubbles” are believed to be natural gas leaking up from deep-water gas reserves.
There are two sites at Maubara, the Church and the Fort. The former offers some superb diving around the numerous bommies on the coral slope. Shallow parts of the slope are not particularly appealing. But, as you go deeper to around 50 feet, (15 m), the coral positively abounds with marine life, nourished by the strong currents that sweep the site.
The large, stunning island of Atauro is 18 miles (30 km) north of Dili. It sits right in the path of the Indonesian Throughflow as it rushes south through the Ombai Strait. Whales, dolphins and schools of pelagics are common around Atauro. The island receives very little rainfall and life is hard for its permanent residents. Development is significantly slower than on the mainland. But the lack of run-off means that the visibility around Atauro is exceptional.
The main dive sites on Atauro are located on the island’s east and west coasts. Eastern sites feature a fringing reef that runs up most of that coastline, while the west is virtually all wall diving. This means plenty of chances for encounters with pelagics or large mammals.
At the very eastern tip of Timor is Jaco Island. This tiny spot lies within Nino Konis Santana National Park, the nation’s first and only national park. Boasting brilliant white-sand beaches, turquoise seas and apparently pristine reefs, the diving around the island is reputedly exceptional. The area is uninhabited and commercial fishing boats rarely visit. The only real option to dive Jaco Island is from the occasional visiting liveaboard. Alternately, you can join one of the periodic expeditions run by Dili dive operators.
Timor-Leste dive operators
There are currently three operators for scuba diving in Timor Leste, all based in Dili.
Dive Timor Lorosae (DTL) is the longest-established operator and has been in business since 2002. Antony Crean, an Australian from Melbourne, runs Compass Charters and Ocean Adventures. Compass started by offering water taxis over to Ata’uro Island but is now a PADI Dive Resort. The also run an eco-camp at Adara on the Ata’uro’s west coast.
Aquatica Dive Resort is Australian-owned and offers PADI courses up to Divemaster, plus local and regional dives and equipment hires.