The island of Atauro has a certain solemn majesty to it when viewed from a distance, with its volcanic limestone slopes soaring skyward and often crowned with cloud. It sits in the Ombai Strait, some 30 kms north of Dili and right in the path of the famous Indonesian Throughflow as it streams between the main islands of Alor and Wetar, carrying a rich cargo of nutrients from the deep basins of the Banda Sea to the north. it is this that gives Atauro some of the richest reefs in the Coral Triangle - and that's saying a lot for an area that is the centre of marine biodiversity on the planet!
In August 2012 highly respected marine scientists Mark Erdmann and Gerry Allen led a Rapid Marine Biological Assessment of Timor Leste for Conservation International.The results of the assessment indicated that the area was ranked 7th for overall coral fish diversity out of a total of 49 survey conducted in the Coral Triangle. Atauro was singled out as having the most diversity and establishing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the island was described as a top priority.
Sparely populated and home to only about 8000 people, most of whom live in the two main villages of Vila and Beloi on the eastern side of the island, Atauro is about 25km long, from north to south, and has a total land-mass of roughly 140 sq kms. Unlike the rest of Timor Leste, which is 98% Catholic, Atauro is predominantly Protestant and it is said that the animism that strongly underpins Christianity in the country is particularly prominent on the island…Timor Leste’s colonial rulers the Portuguese used Atauro as a prison island from the late 16th century and criminals from other parts of their empire – incidentally the first truly global empire and the longest lasting colonial empire – were sent there.
Most of Atauro’s residents are subsistence farmers and fishers – getting by growing annual crops of corn and beans, supplemented with fish, fruit and seasonal vegetables. The only real sources of cash income being the small but growing tourism industry and the sale of fish, chickens or goats, and vegetables on market days.
Diving Atauro Island is something you must not miss if you visit Timor Leste – it has some excellent dive sites on both the east and west coasts, with virtually all of them featuring magnificent walls that drop down in to the deep waters of the Ombai and Wetar Straits that surround the island.
There are also sheltered bays and good, occasionally spectacular fringing reefs that feature a large variety of hard corals, bright red barrel sponges, gorgonian fans and colorful soft corals.
Besides it’s excellent walls the deep waters of the Ombai Strait are on the migratory path for many species of whales and sightings are made on a regular basis. Obviously I was hoping to see them underwater while diving Atauro Island, but it was not to be and this was the closest I got.
There is a weekly ferry service from Dili to Beloi on the east coast of Atauro and the only jetty on the island. The ferry is the Berlin Nakroma, which was a gift from Germany and departs at 09.00 for the two hour crossing and returns again at 16.00. Fares in “Business Class” which apparently means anybody who is a foreigner… is US$5 each way.
Barry’s Place, sometimes simply called Atauro Lodge is a true eco-lodge with a very strong focus on the environment and a sustainable approach to everything they do through the use of traditional construction techniques and locally sourced building materials like bamboo and lontar palm that are cut seasonally so as not to degrade the source of supply.
“Barry” is Barry Hinton – a Queenslander who went to Timor Leste in 2001, met and married his wife Lina and moved to Atauro Island to start Barry’s Lodge. In terms of places to stay on Atauro Island, Barry’s Place is somewhat of an institution as it was the first formal accommodation on the island. However there are no scuba diving facilities at Barry’s, so you would need to coordinate your diving with one of the main dive operators in Dili and arrange for them to pick you up at Barry’s and drop you back again after the diving is done for the day.
There are at least five significant dive sites on the west coast and all share the defining walls that make diving Atauro island quite so special. Of the five sites Adara, around the center of the west coast, probably has the most variety as there is a nice bay and the walls to the north and south of the bay offer some very nice diving.
There is some good diving on the east coast of Atauro Island and two sites stand out – one is at the village of Beloi, located roughly half-way up the coast, and the other further south at the village of Vila.
With the sheer variety of coral and fish species on display, the chance of witnessing whales as well as reef sharks and occasionally humphead wrasses and big pelagic species, Atauro has much to recommend it as a dive destination for those with frontier instincts.
Get the latest news from The Coral Triangle