In June, Timor-Leste, the tiny island nation tucked away amid the eastern Indonesian archipelago, was named a “Hope Spot” by Mission Blue, the ocean conservation foundation established by the legendary marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle.
Hope Spots are special places identified by Mission Blue that are critical to the health of the ocean. Timor-Leste’s Hope Spot is the Ombai-Wetar Strait, which separates Timor-Leste from the Indonesian islands to the north.
The ecosystems within the strait include the world’s highest recorded coral reef biodiversity and are a major migration corridor for large whales, pelagic sharks, sea turtles and other marine megafauna in the western Indo-Pacific.
Dr. Earle says the Ombai-Wetar Strait Hope Spot recognises the global significance of Timor-Leste’s oceans, particularly its coral reefs and marine wildlife – and the island’s potential for sustainable marine ecotourism development. “The Hope Spot offers ‘blue hope’ – recognising the people of Timor-Leste’s extraordinary commitment to ocean conservation. [I’d like to highlight the Hope Spot] Champions’ goals of establishing the country as a sustainable dive tourism and whale-watching destination, developing community-based conservation and marine ecotourism livelihoods, and supporting improved ocean protection.”
The US Government provided major support for the Hope Spot, through the United States Agency for International Development’s establishment of the Marine Tourism Association of Timor-Leste and support for its nomination of the Ombai-Wetar Strait Hope Spot. Situated in the heart of the Coral Triangle region, Timor-Leste’s rich waters include the global epicentre of tropical marine biodiversity.
“The Ombai-Wetar Strait Hope Spot offers great recognition of what many of us in Timor-Leste already know. We live in a very, very special place with truly extraordinary and abundant marine life,” says Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, former president of Timor-Leste and a Nobel Peace Prize-winner. “The great challenge for Timor-Leste is to protect and celebrate it – and promote stewardship of this extraordinary gift from Mother Nature.”
Timor-Leste continues to face major economic and human development challenges after a long war of independence with Indonesia that ended with independence in 2002. Timor-Leste’s waters are a source of oil reserves, but according to Mission Blue, the country has been looking to develop nature-based tourism.
Professor Karen Edyvane, a marine biologist and president of the Marine Tourism Association of Timor-Leste and Hope Spot Champion, says that the Ombai-Wetar Strait’s marine ecotourism values are exceptional but are highly vulnerable. She emphaises the need for the need for sustainable tourism as well as conservation and marine research.
“If we are to save Timor-Leste’s marine life and develop nature-based jobs, we also desperately need more science and essential baseline information. Particularly on the country’s globally-significant reefs and marine megafauna – including current human impacts. Fortunately for Timor-Leste, we not only have some of the best diving and highest marine biodiversity on the planet, and we also have passionate and highly committed partners who want to protect it.”