These days it seems that everything has been done before. “Rare” landscapes have been mapped out by Google satellites, and new species have become news headlines around the globe – this planet is so well covered that there appears no stone left unturned. Yet still in this brilliantly connected world are people finding never-before-seen sights. We now know that Ataúro Island, a small and relatively unknown island a short boat ride away from the East Timorese capital, Dili, has the most biodiverse waters in the world – a fact that has only just been discovered, and scientists are going crazy over it.

Ataúro Island is located within the Coral Triangle

Ataúro Island is located within the Coral Triangle

The discovery came during a Conservation International (CI) survey to support the local government in achieving its goal of protecting and maintaining its “natural capital” – a country’s stock of natural assets. To protect this natural capital, the government has to fully understand what they are dealing with, so that the correct planning can take place to benefit the environment. With East Timor being a developing country, its data were insufficient – and, at the time, there were no data on the marine environment at all. CI were employed to examine the environmental conditions and went onto make the discovery.

What they discovered broke all previous known records for species of reef fish per site: Each site examined within the area had an average of 253 reef fish species, surpassing the previous record for Raja Ampat, which had an average of 216 species at each site. Ten study sites surround Ataúro Island were examined for the survey, and one site boasted 315 species – which is the third highest globally for a single site, and just over 20 species fewer than that at Fak Fak-Kaimana Coast, West Papua.

In total, the scientists discovered 643 species across the 10 sites, amongst which several species were thought to be new or extremely rare in other locations. UW360 asked Trudiann Dale, East Timor director at Conservation International, about how many of the area’s resident species were thought to be unique to the area, and why this might be:

“We are still counting! Timor-Leste is a unique island as it has been created through volcanic action and uplifts. The island of Ataúro is even more unique as it has not had a connection with another landmass. This means that all the species on the island have arrived there by air, transported by a living raft or attached to an airborne species, or travelled on the marine currents, or were introduced by man. The isolation of this type of island allows species to adapt to the environment and either create endemic species or totally new species. These unique species will only occur in this unique environment so it is of conservation concern to protect their habitats.

“Due to Timor-Leste’s unique position with the Timor Seas (Arafura Sea and The Ombai Strait), it receives a constant flush of clean water, nutrients and food that keeps the reefs in great condition and offers an opportunity for fish diversity.”

A storm in the mountains of Atauro Island, as seen from the beach © Conservation International/photo by Tracy Farrell

A storm in the mountains of Ataúro Island, as seen from the beach © Conservation International/photo by Tracy Farrell

As East Timor is becoming an increasingly popular tourism destination, the news will be greatly received for those looking to put the region on the map as a top diving location.

“If you are into reefs then this is some of the best diving around,” says Dale. “Like the rest of Timor-Leste the island is surrounded by a narrow band of reef, up to around 200 metres wide, which then falls off to a depth of up to four kilometres. This creates very compact and diverse reef systems as everyone is vying for a good position!

“This unique feature of a narrow band next to deep waters allows cetaceans to come very close to the island, and [be] clearly visible from land. It also provides constant clear water flowing past which is rich in nutrients for the fish and corals. As the island has no flowing rivers, there are no sediment pollutants such as you find on a mainland. On Ataúro, they found corals believed to be up to centuries old, due to the pristine conditions.”

The visibility is good all year round, but during the December-to-February wet season, and July to September when the seas are rough, some sites become unavailable due to currents and turbidity. The peak season is October to November.

“The majority [of reefs] are excellent to pristine,” says Dale, “but some still have scars from previous bad fishing practices such as blast fishing.” During the survey, CI found clear evidence of overfishing within the area: Reefs had been damaged by blast fishing, and there was a notable absence of larger reef fish. 

School of barracuda at Ataúro Island © Nick Hobgood

School of barracuda at Ataúro Island © Nick Hobgood

In May this year, new regulations were put in place to combat the decline in fish by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – regulations that included adding 19 new species to the country’s Marine Protected Species list (including sharks, dugongs and spotted eagle rays), as well as a minimum catch size of commonly eaten market fish to reduce juvenile fish catches and educate communities.

Dale also highlights the diversity of diving around the island. “I would say [a diver can spot] over 180 [different species] at the sites further out from Dili and Ataúro Island, while some of the more-visited sites less than that. Like all places, Timor-Leste has different dive sites highlighting different species.”

A humphead wrasse swims in the waters near Timor-Leste, Atauro Island. © Gerry Allen

A humphead wrasse swims in the waters near East Timor, Ataúro Island © Gerry Allen

With such an exciting discovery, officials will be keen to conserve all they can in a bid to lift the region’s tourism. What’s remarkable is how such a small island has brought into focus new species and newfound locations for existing species, both terrestrial and marine. CI are looking to make a submission for the entire island and its waters to become a protected area.

“Protecting an area, especially one where communities are living and earning a livelihood, takes some time as the entire area needs to undergo a zoning process. This zoning plan is undertaken with the communities, stakeholders, and government, and identifies the core areas or ‘no-take zones’ as they are known, for the highest protection, and then the remaining zones according to the needs of the people and government.

“The communities of Ataúro Island have a full appreciation of how special their island is, and one community has already assigned a marine no-take zone for their village. It is a key turtle nesting area, but also a source of ecotourism income, as the village charges USD1.50 for tourists to go snorkelling there. Developing this type of ecotourism income is key to the future of the island’s people, and relies directly on the preservation of the reef diversity. CI i
s working with this community and several others on the island to develop more locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs), as well as fisheries management plans for the areas in-between the MPAs.”

With many of the world’s “pristine” areas seemingly being overrun by badly-managed tourism, officials will be cautious about how to market and develop the area in such a way that protects the environment. But for divers with a sensibility for sustainability, the excitement surrounding this discovery could place the destination as a new diving Mecca.