When I first started thinking about my gap year, I already knew the ocean would feature highly in my plans. Ever since I can remember, the ocean has held a special place in my heart, and at just 11 years old I asked my mom if I could be SCUBA certified. I quickly fell in love with exploring areas that few humans can say they’ve ever been. I left each dive yearning for more.

When I found Blue Ventures I knew it was a perfect match. Not only would I be able to strengthen my passion for diving but I’d also be able to enrich my knowledge of the marine ecosystem surrounding me through their science training program. Another goal for my gap year was to go to a place I had never heard of before, and Ataúro Island in Timor-Leste fit that niche perfectly. Not only was it in the coral triangle – one of, if not the most, biodiverse and beautiful places to dive – but I’d never heard of Ataúro before discovering Blue Ventures. A small, mysterious island half-way around the world was calling my name.

I’m so glad I took the opportunity to come to Ataúro. The Blue Ventures staff were amazing, the accommodation at Barry’s Place was wonderful, and the diving that I had so looked forward to was absolutely out of this world! However, I’m actually going to talk about something else, because my favourite part of the trip was being given the chance to connect with the friendly Ataúro community.

I really felt I was making new friendships and truly experiencing the local culture.

This is one of the aspects that really separates Blue Ventures expeditions from all the other diving-based expeditions. From walking through the lively Saturday markets, to aiding in conversational English practice at a nearby school, and even practicing my Tetum (one of Timor-Leste’s official languages) with Antonio, our boat captain, during boat marshall duties, I really felt I was making new friendships and truly experiencing the local culture. Blue Ventures’ work here is all about supporting grassroots conservation efforts, and the foundation of trust and community integration that this brings is really noticeable as a volunteer.

An example of this integration is the Blue Ventures homestay programme, which directly supports the community by providing a sustainable and alternative income. When I first heard I would be partaking in a two-week homestay programme I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I had participated in two other homestays before, which I’d enjoyed, but both had involved a complete inability to communicate with my hosts and restless nights sleeping on the floor.

Our host family was absolutely delightful and made every effort to make sure we were comfortable.

To my pleasant surprise, my homestay on Ataúro couldn’t have been more different. My fellow volunteer and I not only had spacious room with comfortable beds and mosquito nets, but we even had an ensuite toilet! Our host family was absolutely delightful and made every effort to make sure we were comfortable. The family was composed of Yule, the mother, Moises, the father, their son Ryvaldo and their daughters Nona and Pisi’a. Moises works on a boat all week so we only met him once, but he was very friendly. Most of our days were spent diving and working back at Barry’s Place with the other volunteers, but it was always lovely to have a welcoming home to return to each evening.

We often helped Yule with the cooking, or entertained the kids. They taught us new Tetum words and we taught them some English as well. Over the two weeks we became really close with the family and even continued to visit them after our placement in their house had ended. For example, our host sister Pisi’a was turning two on the same day her grandmother turned 95, so the family decided to throw a big party. We were invited along, and went over early to help them prepare the feast. We even gave Pisi’a a little doll as a birthday present, which she adored!

I truly think the homestay programme allows volunteers to have a more fulfilling expedition.

I absolutely loved my time in Timor-Leste with Blue Ventures and my only sadness was that it ended too soon. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the homestay programme. I truly think it allows volunteers to have a more fulfilling expedition because getting to know members of the community gives a context to the importance of marine conservation in the region. I have no doubt that Blue Ventures’ marine research and community-based programmes will have substantial long-lasting positive effects for the citizens in and around Timor-Leste, and especially on Ataúro. I hope to come back a few years from now and see just how much has been achieved by the community.

Interested in experiencing the hospitality of Ataúro Island for yourself?

Sign up for a marine conservation expedition!

Blue Ventures would like to thank our supporters and funders including the Darwin Initiative through UK Government funding, the GEF through UNEP under the Dugong and Seagrass Project, and Wilstar.

Posted by Guest author

We regularly invite guest authors, including expedition volunteers, independent researchers, medical elective students and former staff to contribute to the Beyond Conservation blog.

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