Blue Whales - Exploring a new Frontier in Timor Leste
Imagine a place where it is possible to finish your morning coffee, swim with a dugong, and then be slap bang in the midst of a school of migrating blue whales. Somewhere that you can also see super pods of dolphins and resident sperm whales, along with the world’s most biodiverse reefs.
Whilst this sounds too good to be true, word has started to spread about a little-known dive secret in Southeast Asia. I have spent the past couple of years exploring Timor-Leste, presenting the dive show, Timor-Leste from Below on ScubazooTV. And the rumours were true: the waters here really are this special.
So when Simon Lorenz of Insider Divers approached me to run a tour with him this year, it didn’t take much consideration. Happiness, after all, is an emotion best shared. And there are very few things that make divers happier than marine megafauna.
Check out this video by Maddy Prout
Earlier this month we found ourselves boarding a plane to one of the best dive destinations you’ve never heard of, along with 10 other hardy souls. A trip to Dili in Timor-Leste is one for the adventurous at heart.
Compared to neighbouring Indonesia, it lacks infrastructure, has few connecting flights, and is relatively expensive. Life moves at a gentle stroll, as the country continues its recovery from war, and a struggle for independence that lasted until the beginning of the century.
But for visitors willing to invest a little time (and a dollop of patience), you might just be rewarded with some of the greatest underwater encounters you will ever have; stories to not only bore the grandkids with, but anyone who will listen.
The majority of our 9-day trip was spent patrolling the high seas, eyes peeled on the horizon for the unmistakable misty spout of a blue whale. Every year, they pass through the Ombai-Wetar Strait, en route to feeding grounds further west. It is one of the few places on the planet where sightings are guaranteed.
However this year the whales’ migration was late. Our first few days on the water, by Timorese standards, was slow and *all* we saw was a couple of pairs of blue whales
While the whales were a slow start we were entertained by a super pod of over 1000 spinner dolphins that swam with the boat for a good 45 minutes, and a breaching manta ray. Still, not too shabby.
When the action was low we would freedive on the breath taking reefs of the Timor Straight devoid of damage, coral bleaching, or any other divers.
We also spent time scuba diving along the coast with critters galore in the muck and on the pristine reefs
We dove and snorkeled with Timor-Leste’s famous resident, Debbie the Dugong.
However, we were all here for the main event: the blue whale migration.
On our penultimate day in Timor-Leste, we sat at the sunset bar digesting our encounter with Debbie, sipping on a cold one. And then - not half a kilometre from shore - we noticed a large pod of whales passing through. And like that, our final day’s diving was cancelled, as Simon made plans to head back out into the blue. The migration had officially started.
As we set out at 6am the following day, the sun rising over Christo Rei, Dili’s iconic statue of Christ overlooking the city, the mood in our camp was positive; would we get that underwater encounter we all so desperately wanted?
Straight away the crew spotted a pod of blues. We followed alongside them for a while, acclimatising them to our presence. Every ten minutes or so they would surface, take three or four breaths and then descend, continuing on their migratory path.
The key is to try and forecast where they will take their first breath and then manoeuvre into position ahead of them, slip into the water and try to catch a glimpse of them near the surface before they descend.
After a couple of failed attempts we dropped in on a 12m juvenile. The timing was perfect, as we catch the curious youngster at the surface. He swims directly alongside us, even gently leaning to one side to check us out.
The group rejoiced in the water as I hugged my old buddy ‘Sipadan Simon’: mission accomplished. It might have only been a 30-second encounter, but it’s one none of us will forget.
(photo by Meg Green)
We stayed with the pod for the rest of the morning, even managing to squeeze in a couple more underwater sightings, before heading back to shore, exhausted, elated, and ready to leave Timor-Leste. Things might not always run smoothly here, but when it all comes together, there’s nowhere quite like it.
If you’d like to join us for next year’s tour, please visit www.insiderdivers.com/timor
About the Author
Aaron 'Bertie" Gekoski
Aaron Gekoski is an award-winning environmental photojournalist, film-maker and TV presenter, specialising in human-animal conflict.
Visit https://www.aarongekoski.com/for more of his work.