East Timor puts underwater wonders on show

A A A

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

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash