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Blue Whales - Timor Leste Nov 2022

Updated: May 27, 2023




Welcome to Timor-Leste, a beautiful and new travel destination offering incredible natural beauty, rich history, and unique cultural experience. Here you can relax on stunning beaches, be wowed by tropical reefs and witness amazing marine live, and explore the rugged mountainous interior. The people will welcome you with warm hospitality when you arrive to the capital of Dili, Timor-Leste with either a flight from Bali, Singapore or Australia, or by land from the Indonesian side of the island, West Timor.

If you are interested in exploring unique cultures, different and new places and have an adventurous spirit, Timor-Leste is for you – come and visit.

Once a year, between the months of October and November, Timor-Leste is graced by the vast & distinctive presence of migrating Pygmy Blue Whales - a subspecies of the largest animals to ever roam our planet!

Very few other locations in the world offer the chance for such close and numerous encounters with these rare & endangered gentle giants of the ocean. So, to have the opportunity to be apart of the 2% of humans in the world to swim and set eyes upon a Blue Whale how could I not!!!

Living in Adelaide, Sth Aust made it an easy decision for me to fly to Darwin, and then it’s just over an hour by plane into Dili. Thanks to my good friend Simon Lorenz at Insider Divers to give me and the group this opportunity.

Insider Divers is a company that organises guided scuba diving group trips. Our itineraries are designed to get the best possible diving. We aim to design travel packages that included the best nature experience with the best possible operator.

Viewing dolphins and whales in the wild is totally exhilarating and Timor-Leste is a top location for this. While dolphins and especially the smaller whales, such as short-finned pilot and melon-headed can be seen year round, from October to December the Wetar Strait separating Dili and Atauro becomes a major migratory route (a marine super highway) between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

During this time different species of whales, from massive to smaller, including the blue, beaked, humpback, sperm, killer, short-finned pilot and melon-headed, along with very large pods of dolphins can be viewed from cruise boats and the shoreline. Marine scientists refer to Timor-Leste as a global hotspot for whales and dolphins due to their abundance, diversity and sheer density of numbers.

My trip commenced at a blurry eyed time of 4.00am to get to the Adelaide Airport for an early flight to Darwin, then with a short layover I checked in with Qantas for a 1hr 20min flight to Dili arriving at approx. 4.15pm on the same day.

Upon landing and having all my documents prepared (Covid, Customs & Health etc) I made my way along the breezeway to a small window, paid $30US for my Visa and then safely collected my luggage by-passing the next Customs process. I exited being bombarded by the local taxi drivers and alike seeking the much needed tourist $$$. My response was to politely decline and eagerly made my way outside hoping there was someone to transfer me to either the Dive Operator or Hotel.

I stood there in in my long pants, shirt and jacket in 70%+ humidity looking aimlessly into the crowd trying to locate a sign or person/s as I start to dehydrate and sweat profusely. It wasn't too long before my transfer guys from Compass Diving identified my clothing and dive bag, approached me and made contact.

A short drive later I arrived at Hotel Timor and met with a few of the other group members and Tour Leader Aaron Gekoski, checked in and met my roomy for the week 'Ming'. After settling in, the whole group was requested to meet in a conference room for a meet and greet from the 'Cassio' representing Compass Diving. We then introduced ourselves to the group - why we are here and a 'Snapshot' of our background etc, and an introduction and background from our Host, Aaron Gekoski and what we can expect for the coming week.

It had been a long and tiring travel day for everyone, people were weary, hungry but ecstatic to be in Timor and enthusiastic to swim with Blue Whales. After the meeting, as a group we went to a local Portuguese Restaurant for dinner 😢 and then we all retired for the night.

For the rest of the week, the typical format would remain the norm;

  • Breakfast at 6.30am

  • Check camera gear and batteries

  • Transfer to boats (2) 7.00am

  • Head East on the Wetar Strait to search for Blue Whales

  • Await sightings, snacks on boat, sunscreen & hydrate

  • Snorkel drops to swim with Whales 🐋🐋🐋

  • Return to Hotel, refresh and meet for dinner

  • A few quiet Deco Beers, recap on the day

  • Goodnight and reset for tomorrow

Day 1 Aqhari & Cassio greeted us all at breakfast and eagerly encouraged us to make a move to head to our transfer boats to head out East of the Wetar Strait as there are other Charter Boats who we will be competing with. Prior to everyone leaving Aaron split the group into 2 groups of 5 for each boat for the week.

Familiarities done, name recall and groups selected we all clambered into a small tinny and headed to our day boat excited to see and swim with the Blue Whales.

Heading out we passed Cristo Rei statue and the beach to head East in hope to see Blue Whales as they migrate West via the Wetar Strait from the Banda Sea to the Antarctic. It wasn't long before we had surface sightings in either solo, mum and calf or multiple whales surfacing and diving. "Can we get in please" screamed everyone (quiet voice), so keen and impatient but Cassio calmed us down and explained the process and behaviour we must abide to....

As we gear up with free diving fins, mask & snorkel and cameras the skipper orientated the boat so we could have a safe and successful drop. Perched on the side of the boat we wait for the signal "go, go, go & swim to the right". Soooo excited, I'm sure we all forgot about the briefing advice to enter the water slowly and quietly and we all swam like a crazy heard of buffalo's driving Ferrari's 🦬 🏎 😂.

We had a few drops for the day with mixed results (hits & misses), but had at least 2 with amazing moments of wonderful sightings with the Whale passing under us within 5-8mts.

For the next 2 days the sightings, drops and swims just got better and better teasing us with higher expectations each day.

And they didn't disappoint either as on day 2 we had the near perfect drop with the aid of a drone in the air which was pinpointing where a Mum & Calf were, so we all swam fiercely following the drones direction and had a near head on experience - which I will let the following video tell the story.

The quantity, proximity and regularity of sightings we were witnessing was awe inspiring, and as Aaron said in the years he has been running trips and visiting the interactions we were having was astounding - luckily we were in the high of a peak period.

During day 1 to day 2 I cheekily teased Aaron stating that we have had the Appetiser & Entree with the Main meal and Dessert to come as our sightings and interaction were insane and got better and better every day (tongue in cheek). He told us how lucky we were with the interactions as they were above average, well above average!

On day 3 an option was given to travel west to a sandy beach to take the chance to see a local icon (Debbie the Dugong) - who hasn't been seen for a while, but we would then resume Whale watching if Debbie failed to make an appearance.

Five of us including Aaron took the risk to see Debbie, we headed West to Tasi Tolu beach. We quietly cruised the waters scanning the surface along with launching a drone to have a birds eye view and after waiting diligently for approx. 45 minutes Debbie was a 'No Show'.

The decision was made to abort and head East to resume Blue Whale watching for the remainder of the day, but that was not to be! Enroute as we cruised past Cristo Rei beach I thought I saw a Dolphin fin break the waters surface approx. 80 mts to the left of the boat, and called out Dolphin at 9 0'clock and the boat slowed for everyone to see. But then with another splash Aqhari thought it was a Tuna, but no. I then saw a large elongated white reflection below the waters surface simultaneously as a turtle surfaced, then in a flash a large caudal tail fin broke the surface and Aqhari yelled "Tiger Shark".

We then realised we were witnessing a National Geographic moment in the wild, a Tiger Shark attacking and trying to kill/eat a green turtle in the open ocean. Few words were spoken, but it was agreed as a group for all of us to enter the water to get closer to the action. With cameras in hand we slowly slid into the water and creeped ever sooo slowly towards the shark, stayed close together and watched and filmed for around 3 1/2 minutes.

The sharks behaviour was later discussed and identified that she was trying to drown the turtle rather that just bite down and kill it, and in my video you can see just that along with the turtles desperate escape.

The moment when the turtle took a surface breath and the two swam away in opposite directions into the deep blue was actually when I realised 'This moment just got Real'. The fact that we were still in the water - the turtle got away and the shark failed to get its meal was a surreal and scary thought, so we all linked arms kept our heads on a swivel and slowly slowly moved back towards the boat keeping our eyes peeled beneath the water until we were all safely back on the boat.

Elated, Amazed, Exhilarated & Ecstatic was an understatement of how we felt (numb) and what we were blessed to witness and experience. Speechless as words could not comprehend this moment....we were all in a state of a euphoric high - fist pumping, high 5'ing and hugging each other in elation.

After coming back down to earth (not really) we continued East for the Blue's, not really caring what we would or would not see for the remainder of the day. Communications were passed onto the other group of our encounter without gloating tooooo much and to assess the days Whale sightings.

The day finished on such a high note I could not believe how awesome the trip has been and satisfied I had just had the best Main course in all the years and exotic places I have ever dived.

Day 4's itinerary took us out for a day trip to a local Island - Atauro Island for some scuba and free diving with an approx. 1 1/2hr boat ride across the Wetar Strait. As we cruised across the Strait with Atauro Island in sight the boat skipper called out "Whales", but not just any whales, they were Sperm Whales. What a serendipity moment as this trip just keeps on giving and I lean to Aaron and whisper "Dessert".

So for the next 3 1/2hrs to engorge on the opportunity we split into two boats and swam and watched many different pods of Whales in adult groups, mums and calfs and solo. We did many drops in the water, but these whales can turn on a dime unlike the Blue Whale so we needed to be much quieter with stealth to have a chance to get close.

As we coast the waters looking for more whales, we realised we were near a group of three adults who were displaying 'Spy-hopping" behaviour. So, we put on our snorkel gear with cameras at the ready and sat quietly on the edge of the boat as they drew closer and closer watching us, such a special moment. When they got close enough without being threatened we all slinked into the water and slowly swam towards them to grab a close encounter. It was a resounding success with all of us getting up close and personal sharing the ocean with an amazing creature

A spyhop is when a whale sticks its head out of the water to have a look at what is going on up on the surface. Spyhops usually happen in groups socialising, making a decision of where they want to go, or having a look at a boat full of people.

We could have stayed there all-day, however disturbing the whales natural behaviour can be disruptive so it was decided to leave them alone and continue to Atauro Island to scuba and free-dive.

It was nice to finally get into my dive gear and enjoy the reefs and coral of Atauro which I believe the coral reefs are the most biodiverse in the world and a study in 2016 recorded a higher fish diversity anywhere in the world - more than 4500 fish species, even comparable to Raja Ampat in Indonesia.

Some photo's of the vibrant Coral growth

Day's 5 & 6 were much quieter days as we were leaving the high of the peak and sightings of Whales were becoming less frequent, but the days on the water were still encouraging. A visit to Black Rock for a snorkel and free-dive was amazing, and sooo worth a scuba visit, and it gave everyone an opportunity to continue with free-diving techniques. Later we also snorkelled Cristo Rei beach that has the most abundant and healthy coral and fish life just 20-30mts off the beach.

In the afternoon of Day 5 Aaron arranged for a group tour of the local sites and historic background of Timor and the turmoil they endured. We got picked up in the most colourful and entertaining bus and taken to locations such as - Local Markets, Timorense Resistance Archive & Museum, Santa Cruz Cemetery, Cristo Rei Statue and ended up at a local beach for dinner and Open Air Theatre.

Such a fun group with a mix of ages, cultures and backgrounds and we melded like a family in just a few short days. It didn't take long for inhibitions to fade, humour, sarcasm and mate-ship to start to bond us all, and with that came a series of photo-bombing and sooo much more.... Aaron being the main culprit along with Katrina coming in close 2nd.

Day 7 and it was time for departure for the majority of the group but myself Katrina, Benni & Sandy were staying on for the extension to scuba dive off Atauro Island staying at the Atauro Beach Eco Lodge for another 4 days.

After breakfast we all had our goodbyes, hugs and exchanged social media details and wished them all safe travels, and returned to our Hotel room to pack our luggage for the boat ride to the Island. During the boat ride we were all pondering what our tent accomodation and conditions would be like, eg no a/c, mosquitos, tent living etc etc.

To be honest once we got there and settled in and accepted the remote, cultural and rustic surroundings I found it to be quite a unique and humbling experience. Later that day it was planned for 2 dives just out from the Lodge for a few easy dives.

The facilities of the Lodge were more than adequate with shower&toilet block, power&fan in tents with the communal beach house where all meals, drinks and social moments happened watching the sunsets and reminiscing the days dives and sights.

Some photo's of the Lodge and Dive's

The next 4 days followed the same format with easy afternoon's and early nights to eat dinner, recover and sleep. The weather was amazing with 30dg water, glass-like surface conditions and great food cooked by Sonya.

The diving did provide us with some highlights beyond the abundance, health and vibrant hard&soft coral life. It certainly is a massive biodiverse location for corals and fish species unlike anywhere else in the World.

I had quite a few special moments which I captured on film and would like to share with you

1. Inquisitive Clownfish in their upturned Anemone

2. Green Sea Turtle with Sea Cucumber assimilating Remora behaviour

3. Abundant fish life

Day 11 was upon us before we knew it, and reality sank in realising our trip was ending just as we were settling in to our new found Island Retreat. Is was a sad reality, but nothing a parting Bintang (or 2) could help numb the moment.

As we packed our luggage for the last time and waited for our boat transfer back to Dili, we reflected on the trip at what amazing interactions and sightings we were fortunate to have. Time slipped by and it became obvious our boat transfer would align with the Sunset 🌅 tailing us, what a shame 'Hey'!

Finally we arrived back into Hotel Timor, settled into our individual rooms and met for a light dinner, but most importantly one of the Hotels iconic 'Gin&Tonic'. Tired and weary we retired to meet again for breakfast, recap on the trip and farewell each other as the airport transfers arrive.

Plan your Timor-Leste travel

Explore where to go, what to do and book accommodation

If you’re looking to explore Timor–Leste, there are plenty of things to do and see. Plan your accommodation by choosing from a variety of options, including hotels, guesthouses, and home-stays. Once you’ve sorted out where you’ll be staying, start thinking about what you want to do. There are plenty of options for activities, whether you’re interested in exploring the country’s history and culture, or getting out and about in nature. And of course, don’t forget to try the food – Timor–Leste has some delicious dishes to offer.

Castaway Bar was a favourite restaurant for most.

In closing, 'Take Every Chance You Get In Life, Because Some Things Only Happen ONCE', & let my stories and experience give you inspiration to create your own Moments.

Another 'Rivetting Moment', to inspire & ignite the traveller in you, to broaden life challenges & experiences!!!

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