Timor-Leste a mecca for whales, but they face threats | Johnny Langenheim

One third of all cetacean species are found in the waters off Timor-Leste, but measures are needed to protect them

Olive Andrews believes Timor Leste could be one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching. The research scientist with a particular interest in cetaceans drew this conclusion when she joined a survey team assessing the coastal waters north of Timor-Leste in October 2016. “I’ve never seen such a biomass of cetaceans in such a small geography,” she says. “We encountered 2287 cetaceans from 11 species, including superpods of up to 600 individuals.”

There are 90 distinct species of cetacean – and at least 30 of them occur in Timor-Leste. These include both local populations like melon-headed whales and spinner dolphins, and migratory species such as humpbacks and pygmy blue whales. Managed properly, whale tourism could generate significant income for Timor-Leste, one of the world’s youngest – and poorest – nations.

Globally, whale watching is booming. According to Andrews whale tourism contributes around US$30m a year to the Pacific Islands group. Without it, countries like Tonga – famed for the humpbacks that congregate there to mate and nurse – could revert to whaling, which was practiced there on a small scale until as late as 1978.

It’s not just the quantity and diversity of whales in its territorial waters that make Timor-Leste so unique; it’s their proximity to the land. Geologically, Timor-Leste and its much smaller sister island Atauro are distinguished by the fact that neither was ever attached to a landmass – they were pushed above the ocean’s surface by tectonic activity. As a result, their reefs rarely stretch beyond 250 metres from shore before plunging to much greater depths.

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) are a common site off the coast of Timor Leste
Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) are a common site off the coast of Timor Leste Photograph: Grant Abel/Conservation International

“Pygmy blue whales heading south towards Australia will hang out at a 200m depth contour right off the north coast of Timor; you can literally see them from the beach,” says Andrews.

This is because Timor-Leste lies in the middle of the Indonesian throughflow, where the waters of the Indian and Pacific Ocean collide, causing upwellings of nutrient-rich deep ocean water. The resulting mini-ecosystem is abundant in squid, making it an ideal feeding ground for whales.

But the local whale population faces a number of threats. Timor-Leste is seeking to establish itself both politically and economically following a decades-long conflict with its former coloniser Indonesia, which only came to an end in 2002. Illegal fishing from neighbouring countries is rife and the tiny nation doesn’t yet have the resources to prevent it. Besides a single patrol boat there is no monitoring system to identify shipping in its territorial waters. Whales are getting tangled in vast ghost nets that drift all the way down to the Australian coast. According to Andrews, these intruders aren’t just artisanal fishers, but entire fishing fleets.

Timor-Leste’s ability to enforce fisheries legislation is questionable too. In September last year, ocean activists Sea Shepherd alerted Timor-Leste police to a Chinese fishing fleet illegally catching thousands of sharks. But Australia’s ABC News reported last month that after a nine-month investigation, the fleet had paid a one-off fine of $100,000 to go free, allegedly with its catch – estimated to be worth millions of dollars – intact.

Resource extraction and infrastructure projects also present challenges. French company Bolloré Group has entered a public-private partnership to build a US$490m deep-water port west of the capital Dili. While an environmental impact assessment has been carried out, environmental NGO Conservation International has concerns about increases in shipping traffic and the dumping of dredged materials in whale feeding grounds.

Timor-Leste has seen two elections in the last 12 months – good governance is a work in progress and considering the country’s relative poverty, there is understandably an urgent focus on economic development. The challenge is to ensure investment takes into account the long-term viability and income potential of the country’s marine ecosystems, including its unique whale population.

Draft guidelines for whale and dolphin watching are due to be submitted to parliament at the end of this month – an important step in establishing the foundations of a whale tourism industry. Hopefully it won’t be overshadowed by more lucrative but less sustainable investments.


Johnny Langenheim

The GuardianTramp

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