Timor-Leste (East Timor)

Fraser’s Dolphins, Lagenodelphis hosei

In October 2010 I was lucky enough to visit Timor-Leste for a week’s work. Its a great spot but the terrestrial mammal watching is not so easy. There aren’t a great deal of species to look for, and the few bats that are there are apparently hard to find. I didn’t make much effort.

Fraser’s Dolphins, Lagenodelphis hosei

Cetacean watching is a different story. In late 2008 joint research between the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Timorese government discovered the deep water just off the Timor-Leste coast was a “global hotspot” for cetaceans. In one day alone, more than 1000 individuals from 8 species were spotted. See this article from the NT news. Species seen included Short-finned Pilot Whales, Melon-headed Whales, Spotted, Spinner, Striped, Risso’s, Fraser’s, Bottle-nosed and Rough-toothed Dolphins plus Blue and Beaked Whales. Humpbacks also migrate through the area.

Melon-headed Whale (front) and Pilot Whale (rear)

Apparently November and December are the best time to see large concentrations of animals although several species at least are resident year round. The deep waters just off the north coast of the island are the place to look, and I arranged a morning’s whale watching through Robert Crean at Compass Charters in Dili. Robert, an Australian who has lived in Dili since 1999, was not sure which species we might see but assured me he had a reliable spot where animals were always present. And he was right.


We left Dili at 8am and an hour later were just off of the south west tip of Atouro Island in over 2000 metres of water. I have to admit I was a little sceptical when we arrived at Robert’s ‘spot’ and started driving in circles around a patch of water that couldn’t have been more than a square kilometer. The conditions were excellent but we didn’t see anything for 20 minutes. My scepticism grew.

But then a fin appeared and a small pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales materialised. A few minutes later we spotted a few Melon-headed Whales among them.

Melon-headed Whale, Peponocephala electra

And then dolphins were everywhere. Mainly Fraser’s Dolphins but I saw what I thought were some smaller animals from time to time. Maybe Spinner Dolphins.

Fraser’s Dolphins, Lagenodelphis hosei

We spent a fabulous couple of hours with the animals. They were less approachable than usual, but Robert managed to coax the Fraser’s Dolphins into the wake a few times. The Pilot Whales didn’t want to know and the Melon-heads were quite skittish. I’ve no idea how many animals we saw and whether we were following the same pod or encountering several, but there was plenty to look at.

Fraser’s Dolphins, Lagenodelphis hosei

It was a glorious morning at sea, with both Fraser’s Dolphins and Melon-head Whales new for me. I cannot wait to go back, and hopefully spend longer out there than a few hours. Robert also has a yacht available for charter and a 3 or 4 days at sea with him would be the way to go I think. I didn’t have time to dive but that judging from the clarity of the water, and the photos I have seen, that looks awesome.

Fraser’s Dolphin, Lagenodelphis hosei

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Please email me if you have tips for mammal watching in this area.

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