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East Timor puts underwater wonders on show

He wanted to find a blue-ringed octopus. She was looking for a certain eel. Together the self-confessed "spoiled Americans" flew 30 hours to Asia's newest country, East Timor, and found neither.

But scuba divers Brian and Gina Blackburn, from Houston, weren't disappointed - they found new wonders which both amazed and humbled them.

"In the Caribbean, finding fan coral that big is impossible because the tourists have destroyed it," Gina said as she dried off after a dive last week within sight of Dili's ramshackle airport.

"We wanted to come here because it's undeveloped, people haven't been diving on it, it's undamaged and pristine. Our favourite, because we don't get it in the Caribbean, is all that soft coral."

The Blackburns were among around 30 mainly amateur photographers who took part in East Timor's inaugural scuba photo competition from October 11 to 15 - President Jose Ramos-Horta's latest project to kick-start tourism in his tiny, fragile state.

It follows last year's inaugural Tour de Timor cycling race, the Dili Marathon and an international game fishing competition - not bad for a country that barely managed to field an Olympic team in Sydney in 2000, a year after its bloody vote for independence from Indonesia.

Scores of thousands of East Timorese died during the brutal 24-year occupation, aspects of which were depicted in the recent film "Balibo".

Events like the photo competition help to "reassure people that the situation in East Timor is peaceful, that it is safe," Ramos-Horta told AFP.

"Anyone who is involved in diving will have read already about the potential in Timor, because there are not too many places left on earth that are unexplored."

- In search of Rhinopias -

Words like "unexplored" and "pristine" were heard frequently around the scuba shops of Dili as the photographers - from countries including Australia, China, England, Italy, Singapore and South Korea - returned from their dives.

Another word on many competitors' lips was Rhinopias, or Rhinopias frondosa to be exact - a poisonous and bizarre-looking creature commonly known as a weedy scorpionfish.

It's the sort of thing that excites experienced divers - Taiwanese enthusiasts, for example, were in a froth about them earlier this year. The reefs around Dili seem to have more than their fair share.

"Some people will travel thousands of kilometres (miles) to see these kinds of scorpionfish," explained Edoardo Spacca, an Italian criminologist who spends three months a year diving in Asia.

The amateur underwater photographer described East Timor's marine attractions as "very special".

"It's the concentration of corals and different species of animals all packed in one place - it's unique. The coral is incredibly healthy. It's really beautiful.

"There's been some massive coral bleaching around Asia but I didn't see any here," he added.

Dili-based divers say this is because deep trenches around Timor carry cooler water and protect the island's corals from the higher temperatures which have triggered massive bleaching events across Asia this year.

The impoverished, aid-dependent state of about one million people lies on the southern fringe of an area known as the Coral Triangle, home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet.

Experts say the region of Southeast Asia, stretching from Sumatra in the west to the Philippines in the north and the Solomons in the east, contains 75 percent of the world's coral species.

But they fear that if the climate warms at the rate many scientists expect, it could be gone by the end of the century, robbing more than 100 million people of their livelihoods and destroying a nature-based tourism industry worth an estimated 12 billion dollars a year.

- Development vs environment -

East Timor is hoping to capture a slice of that market before time runs out, not on the reefs but on the UN mission (UNMIT) in the country, whose more than 1,500 well-heeled personnel form the backbone of the local economy.

"When the UN completely pulls out by the end of 2012... there will be hundreds of highly paid UN personnel who will leave," Ramos-Horta explained.

"So we have to create new demand and we do that by promoting tourism... (and) by bringing in investors."

Brian Blackburn said the poverty around Dili "breaks your heart", and while he agreed the country desperately needed development he hoped a balance could be struck between tourism, the environment and the local way of life.

"What it needs to do to attract tourists is what you don't want it to do. It needs big Hyatt resorts right on the beach, with everything paved and none of this dirt road stuff," he said.

"But that's not what you want - that's not East Timor."

Gina said the couple's East Timor adventure was a radical departure from their usual holidays in Caribbean resorts.

"It makes us more appreciative of what we have, and realise how spoiled we are compared to them (the East Timorese). Americans have it all but we're not smiling. They have nothing but they laugh. They're happy people," she said.

For images and information on the prize winners, check the official website: http://www.underwatertimorleste.com