The magnificent anemone is often home for false clownfish

A SERIES OF DREADFULLY LONG FLIGHTS finally set me and my gear down on the warm tarmac of South-east Asias most recent addition, East Timor. Having heard rumours of Timors marine riches from renowned marine biologists Pat and Laurie Colin of the Coral Reef Research Foundation, I had been fantasising about these waters for years.
At last, my dreams had been replaced by a hot and humid reality. The time had come for immersion in the azure sea gently lapping East Timors shores.
Since its inception, East Timor has been below the dive industrys radar. This is due to years of political and social unrest, remnants of Portuguese colonisation and a traumatic 25-year Indonesian occupation.
But a new day dawned for this former island colony when independence was declared in 2002.
During its infancy, East Timor has had assistance from the United Nations and a number of NGOs, helping the country to its feet and supporting industries vital to the countrys economic survival, including eco-tourism and specifically diving.
Why the fascination with diving this seldom visited destination
I was to find out why East Timor held such appeal while hanging out with two of the countrys most knowledgeable divers, Wayne Lovell and Ann Turner of Freeflow Diving. I had expressed curiosity about East Timors reef inhabitants via email, so was heartened to find that Wayne, a former war journalist, ambulance driver and nudibranch geek, was an authority on local marine-life habits, bizarre critters and all.
Wayne and Ann gave me a rundown on where to find many of the species for which I had been searching on my incessant travels.
Blaming it on the jet-lag, I wiped drool off my chin as they rattled off the locations where pygmy seahorses, ribbon eels, ghost pipefish and uncommon nudibranchs were to be found. Our banter would have sounded puzzling to anyone unfamiliar with opisthobranch genus and species names.
As my first luminous East Timor sunset commenced, I assembled my camera set-up, comfortable that I was in the right place.

NEXT MORNING WAYNE met me at the Hotel Dili, where I was set up in style, and we drove into the filtered rays of sunlight, leaving behind a cloud of golden dust. A light breeze, pushing puffy cumulous clouds over the island, kept us comfortable.
I had expected a rather monotonous drive to the first dive site, but instead I was treated to a rousing tour of the islands north-eastern coastline.
Built by the Indonesians, the semi-paved road traced the seas contours, mountains rising on one side, a precipitous drop to blue water on the other. Winding through small villages and rice paddies, we avoided most of the water buffalo, goats, pigs, dogs, and chickens that frequented the roadside, finally pulling onto a beach.
Over the next week I found that typical dive days in East Timor involved an invigorating 45-minute drive along the coast, then, under the watchful eyes of goats, suiting up on a deserted beach sheltered by listless palm fronds.
Most dives were a stones throw from shore, beginning with a gently sloping reef or a more precipitous drop-off.
Sites ranged from vertical walls covered in vivid life and uncountable fish, through sandy, critter-filled muck dives, to luxurious seascapes of hard and soft corals.
I was under water for 70 minutes on the average plunge, though it would seem like the blink of an eye.
Relaxed surface intervals were spent kicking back on a beach, nibbling lunch and discussing the most recent fish or invert to blow our minds. Then it was off to another site down the road. I hadnt done such civilised shore diving in years.
East Timor is separated from its northern neighbour, Indonesia, by the Ombar and Wetar Straits, which share a trench that dips to more than 3000m.
To the south lies Australia, only 250 miles away.
Timor is smack in the middle of Wallacea, basically a crossroads for Australian and Asian species. This geography part-explains the unique mix and extraordinary number of fish and invertebrate species. Bio-geographically its a fascinating island, even if Alfred Russell Wallace didnt greatly enjoy his stay in the capital of Dili - but then, Alfred was hardly able to appreciate Timors reefs back in the 1860s.
After several days of exploring Dilis nearby fringing reefs, I was thrilled with the marine life Wayne was showing off.
Nudibranch species rare in other parts of the Coral Triangle were widespread on all dives. Scorpionfish, lionfish, devilfish, crocodilefish and cuttlefish haunted virtually every site.
Hard and soft corals, including some of the biggest gorgonians I have witnessed anywhere in the Indo-Pacific, covered much of the sloping reefs below 5m. Square-spot anthias aggregated their harems in as little as 6m.
Magnificent anemones, robust and colourful as beach-balls, presented themselves around each bend.
Inquisitive giant trevally, Napoleon wrasse, whitetip reef sharks or hawksbill turtles frequently approached while
I gazed at minute spider crabs, ovulids and tunicates. East Timor was a wonderland of species and, as someone trained as a coral reef ecologist, I never knew where to look next.

SOME DIVERS LIKE HOOKING into a reef and watching sharks. Some like to glide along colourful, textured walls of living reef. Others prefer soaring over surreal coral gardens. I like docks, piers and jetties, the grungier the better.
I had been eyeing Dilis main jetty since my arrival. Right in the middle of town, it runs 500m out from the beach and looked like the perfect setting for the weird marine life for which this part of the world is famous.
My trip was coming close to ending when conditions finally became right for diving the jetty. Wayne and I pulled up in the middle of a beachside market, between stalls selling fish, vegetables and dried betel nuts, and set our gear up.
During our swim out, a hawksbill turtle surfaced no more than 6m away. It was a good sign. We descended onto the first gorgonian-laden piling. I realised that my movements should be prudent as several scorpionfish and a spotfin lionfish skittered out of the way.
Within a minute, we had seen three nudibranch species. A bumblebee shrimp waved its chelipeds at me while sitting on a tripneustes urchin.
A snowflake moray poked its head out of an abandoned pipe. The other end of the pipe housed a white-eyed moray.
As I glanced up from inspecting a soft coral, a giant camouflaged grouper passed within a metre of my camera.
A large school of gold-spotted sweetlips accompanied us for most of the dive, while an unexpected golden trevally flashed through the multi-hued pilings every few minutes.
Dilis jetty, perfect for both macro and wide-angle photography, is one of those dives on which its easy to lose track of time. Before I knew it, my computer had had enough.
I have dived, snorkelled and paddled all over the planet for 16 years, but there were moments in East Timor that were sublime. Sites such as K41, K57, Whale Shark Point and Bobs Rock teem with fish and invertebrates. Very few places can compare for coral-reef diversity, ease of diving and untainted beauty.

I USUALLY GET SLIGHTLY DISTURBED with myself for attempting to expand tourism in quaint locales such as East Timor, but I have no such qualms, considering its current anonymity.
There are at least 30 world-class dive sites close to Dili, and countless more to be discovered. During the entire trip I saw no one else in the water or even hanging out on the beaches, unless pigs, goats, and cattle count.
I also appreciated that Wayne and Ann, as self-confessed dive geeks, were as energised and eager to poke about the reefs as I was - rare in any line of work.
Off-gassing days are best spent getting to know the real Timor. Timorese-owned company EcoDiscovery offers a variety of spectacular terrestrial experiences. Passing coffee plantations, water-buffalo wallowing in rice paddies, Timorese hunters laden with bows and arrows - it was hard to believe that I was travelling in the 21st century.
Landscapes varied from 2990m Mount Remelau to grassy plains and savannahs, jungle and coconut forests, all within minutes of one another.
The cultural aspects of visiting remote villages brought East Timor to life for me - with human history that stretches back at least 35,000 years, there is more than just fish to see and learn about.
Marine life has proliferated in Timor because it hasnt been exploited, and despite years of colonisation and oppression. The time has come for the rest of the world to recognise the extraordinary diving that this biodiversity hotspot has to offer.

Ethan Daniels
Smiling children often gather to watch the funny-looking divers.
The cracks, crevices and holes of Timor reefs hide thousands of denizens, including dozens of blenny species.
Soft leather corals thrive along Timors coast.
vibrant colours set a Ceratostoma nudibranch apart from its surroundings
a Nembrotha lineata feeds on tiny tunicates
a small ghost goby sits among soft coral polyps.
The face of a scorpionfish peers out from its hiding place.
A conspicuous lionfish cruises slowly over the bustling reef.
A Timorese fisherman paddles his canoe home after a long day fishing and then shopping in Dili.
GETTING THERE: Merpati Nusantara Airlines flies between Denpasar Bali in Indonesia and Dili. Air North flies daily from Darwin in Australia. The $30 entry visa can be bought on arrival.
DIVING: Dive Timor Losrae is the only PADI dive centre with its own charter vessels and shore safaris on the northern coast. It also has a bar, restaurant and accommodation units (www. Freeflow Diving, email:
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Dili, 00 670 3324 502 or Dive Timor Losrae. For other places to stay see
WHEN TO GO: Year-round except February. Best conditions Apr- Oct, during the dry season. From mid-Aug through October, larger pelagics swim close to inshore reefs. Water temperature 26-28°C.
LANGUAGE: Tetum, but English is commonly spoken.
HEALTH: Take precautions against malaria and dengue fever.
ISLAND TOURS: Eco Discovery,
MONEY: US dollar. Bring plenty of small bills, as its difficult to get change. There are two ATMs in Dili usually in working order.
PRICES: Return flights to Bali from 700, Denpasar to Dili 150. Accommodation from US $10-145 a night. A 10-dive boat package with Dive Timor Losrae starts from $750, including gear, lunch, drinks and whale and dolphin-watching. Ten shore dives cost from $450.