In late January last year, I was blearily stepping onto tarmac at Dili airport, bitterly regretting the decision to spend the 12 hour layover between flights at international arrivals in Denpasar airport instead of paying for a hotel. I thought that the ambient panpipes, that seemed to occupy every second of the airwaves in the terminal, would never leave my consciousness. Needless to say, I was not at my best in that moment.
Thankfully that unwelcome earworm has since left me, but I now face the prospect of making its re-acquaintance as I leave Timor-Leste for the last time as a Blue Ventures employee…
Whenever I’ve stepped into conservation projects in the past, they have already been well-established and I have often had a local team to help guide me through the first few months. A year ago in Timor-Leste however, I stepped into a whirlwind of preparatory activity. Blue Ventures’ successful ecotourism model was about to be tested for the first time in a country that had never seen conservation expeditions before, and senior staff had been regularly visiting in the preceding months to identify the site, on-board the team, establish relationships with the relevant ministries and build our presence amongst local partners. Volunteers were lined up, a boat had been ordered (but hadn’t yet arrived!), and slowly but surely Timor-Leste’s first volunteer ecotourism programme became a reality.
Each new volunteer and every member of the Blue Ventures family who has passed through have each contributed in their own way to the growth of this project
Building a new expedition base and conservation programme was an attractive prospect for staff and volunteers alike with a keenness to be a part of something new, somewhere new. Each new volunteer and every member of the Blue Ventures family who has passed through have each contributed in their own way to the growth of this project, but as I view my time in Timor-Leste through the lens of the past, it seems more appropriate to highlight those who will shape the future.
Amos da Costa and Jemima Gomes joined us as Dive and Science Assistants in May, to learn to dive and to become part of our expeditions team. Alongside them came Antonio, our jovial human GPS and boat captain who can sense a pod of dolphins long before anyone else can even spot them! Over the past 9 months, Mima and Amos have gone from novice divers to Emergency First Responders and PADI Divemaster candidates; they are also our Tetun teachers, and at the moment of writing I can see and hear them gamely trying to explain the dual meaning of ‘hela’ – the Tetun verb to live – to our new staff and volunteers.
While our home at Barry’s Place is about the best location you could ever hope for, our future also lies in the community, with families in the adjacent village of Beloi now hosting our volunteers for two weeks each expedition. This homestay programme is a vital part of our strategy to diversify and strengthen alternative livelihoods for coastal communities, whilst simultaneously providing volunteers with a chance to really understand the lived experience of their hosts. We’re at the point where, if you’re reading this and planning to join us on Ataúro Island, this will form a part of your expedition. However, this would not have been possible without the immense amount of work done by our Community Conservation Coordinator Oldegar Massinga to take the homestays from being an almost entirely new idea on Ataúro to something tangible and successful in the space of a few short months.
I have no doubt that homestays on Ataúro will be a success. I can be certain of this because they draw upon something that has been a constant in my time here – the infallible openness and hospitality of the people of Timor-Leste. The moments I’ll remember most include staying in a homestay, seeing my first blue whales and watching a host of communities begin leading from the front on local marine conservation through implementing Tara Bandu laws. I only had these experiences because somebody was willing to share something – either their home, their knowledge of the sea, or their desire to safeguard their ‘Riku Soin’ or natural treasures.
This time next year, things in Timor-Leste will no doubt have changed even more; communities are moving forward with marine conservation and, as ever, our work will develop based on their evolving needs. We’ll build partnerships and our team will grow in step. It has been a rare – and challenging – experience to be part of the birth of the project here, and I’ll continue to follow its progress from the UK with more than just a keen interest as our supremely talented new team carries it forward. But before that, Bali airport awaits once more, but this time around I’ll be getting a hotel…
The header image was taken by Francesca Reidy.
All other images were taken by Jen Craighill unless otherwise specified in the caption.
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Blue Ventures would like to thank our supporters and funders including the GEF through UNEP under the Dugong and Seagrass Project and Wilstar.