Timor-Leste: Migration, Predation, Lactation, Elation
Aaron Gekoski writes about our 2022 Insider Divers Timor Leste expedition looking for blue and sperm whales. Videos and photos by Aaron and our guests (see below).
“A tuna!? No, it’s a hammerhead! Or…is it a tiger shark? Eating a turtle?!”
Day four of our 2022 Insider Divers tour to Timor-Leste was about to take yet another surreal turn. Day one had involved almost getting run over by a blue whale mother and calf underwater.
On day two we diverted from another pair of blues and saw a pod of a dozen killer whales from the surface.
Day three, on the other hand, was friendly-sperm-whale-morning. Now here we were - fresh from an unsuccessful detour to try and catch a glimpse of resident dugong, Debbie - faced with perhaps the most bizarre encounter to date (usually we do encounter dugongs as well).
To most, the sight of a tiger shark in full predation mode, chomping down on a turtle’s shell, might be something to enjoy from the safety of a boat. But divers are a funny bunch, and once we identified the commotion in the ocean, there was only one thing on our groups’ mind. We collectively slipped into the water next to the chaotic scene, as the shark once again appeared from the deep with the turtle in its mouth. Occasionally, the turtle would escape to the surface to take a breath, only for the shark to return, and – with the snap of its jaws – clamp down on the poor turtle once more.
hrough the muffled, snorkelly squeals coming from the group, you could hear the shark’s teeth grate across shell. It was clear that the shark was trying its best to drown the turtle, or simply exhaust it into submission.
We watched this scene play out for a full three minutes, before it appeared that the turtle had made a miraculous escape. Back on the boat, the group danced, hugged, and one – the effervescent Daryll - thanked his nana from above, something he often does before heading out on adventures. And nana, he claimed, always delivers.
We had experienced four collective once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Timor-Leste while most were still in the process of unpacking their bags at our home for the week, Hotel Timor. Even to seasoned Timorese aquaphiles, the encounters were remarkable, off the scale, beyond comprehension. No amount of hyperbole would do this week justice.
To top off the experience we were able to witness an incredibly rare and tender moment. A blue whale mother was nursing her super-size baby calf. This is likely the first ever footage taken of this behavior where the mother squeezes 30-50% fat content milk in high quantities into the mouth of the calf. For lack of nipples and lips it seems bizarre this works without a drop being spilled
The waters around Timor-Leste are some of the richest on the planet. Every year, this small passageway of water, known as the Ombai-Wetar Strait, plays host to a migration of blue whales. For nearly two months, hundreds of individuals take the mammoth journey from the coast of Australia to breed and give birth in Indonesia. En route, they share this playground with 30 other species of cetacean.
Due to some of the challenges of operating in Timor-Leste, these waters are still surprisinglyfree of boat traffic. With limited incoming flights - primarily from Darwin and Bali - Timor-Leste remains a challenge to get to. Places for travellers to eat and sleep are limited and expensive in comparison to neighboring Indonesia. Timor-Leste also doesn’t accept Mastercard, has questionable healthcare, and an infrastructure that develops more sleepily than a tombstoning sperm whale.
As a result, there are only a handful of operators working here: the most boats we saw on any given day was 5 (which is 4 more than when I first started exploring here in 2016 for the show Timor-Leste from Below). Slowly, people are starting to recognise that something special hugs the Timorese coast.
All of the above makes for an authentic and raw experience, but one that adventurous souls will love. This was reflected in our multinational group: two Egyptians, two Americans, an Indonesian, two French, two English, an Aussie, and one German.
Our operator provided extra guides that also have extensive knowledge of the marine life here, and blue whale behaviour. Over the course of several years running blue whale trips, operators have refined their methods, and are now able to time their drops, making underwater encounters far more frequent.
But a trip to Timor-Leste with Insider Divers is about more than ‘just’ having insane underwater encounters. Over the course of the week the group also honed their freediving skills, took part in presentations (including one from world-renowned blue whale expert Professor Karen Edyvane), dived some of the most biodiverse reefs on the planet around Atauro Island, perfected the art of photobombing, and even enjoyed a tour of the capital, Dili…all in a special tour bus.
This truly is one of the last great marine wildernesses on Earth. However, wildlife lovers are starting to take note and recognise what we’ve been telling them for years: Timor-Leste might just be the best dive destination you’ve never heard of. Now hurry up and visit – it won’t remain untouched forever.
If you’d like to join us for next year’s tour, please visit www.insiderdivers.com/timor.
Videos and Photos by Aaron Gekoski, Benoit Maison-Blanche, Daryll Rivett, Angel Lai, Benjamin Fuchs, Cassio and Marawan Abdel Hady
About the Group Leader and Author
Aaron Gekoski is an award-winning environmental photojournalist, film-maker and TV presenter, specialising in human-animal conflict. He fronts environmental film series and is founder of Raise the Red Flag, a global campaign to end cruelty in the Wildlife Tourism industry. Aaron's articles and images regularly appear in the international press and have won numerous awards, including the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
His "Timor Leste Above and Below" SZ TV series has created a big momentum for the young diving industry of the country. Traveling with Aaron you can count on his expertise and local connections getting you to right spots at the right time. Aaron will also provide free talks on Wildlife Tourism and whale biology.