From fishing to ‘whale spotting’ in Subaun: Citizen science, local knowledge and partnerships combine to make unique whale watching in Timor-Leste.

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In the early morning pre-dawn light, against the backdrop of spectacular Mount Curi  a dugout canoe motors out on the still, flat ocean.  The sea quickly changes colour to dark blue, as they pass the shallow, narrow blue ribbon of fringing coral reef, with the seabed plummeting to over 3km deep.  Marine Wildlife Officer, Potenzo Lopes sits at the helm of the narrow boat – binoculars and a large zoom camera in hand – watching the ocean.  Faustino Mauloko da Cunha, a local fisherman from the village of We-Ua (in Subaun), drives the small wooden boat, while his son, Zacarias, joins Potenzo is scanning the horizon with his binoculars.

Photo c. David de Cunha 


Every day, and all day, for the past 60 days, Potenzo, Faustino and the local fishermen and youth of Subaun and Behau have been watching and looking for one of Timor-Leste’s ‘biggest’ tourist attractions – the Pygmy Blue Whale.  Up to 24 metres long, the blue whale undertakes it annual southern migration every September-December, along the very deep coastal waters off the north coast of Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste is a recognized ‘global hotspot’ for whales and dolphins, with over 20 species recorded in its waters, including migratory and endangered species, such as Pygmy Blue Whales and Sperm Whales.  With annual migrations – often very close to shore – it also provides some of the best and most accessible, whale-watching in the world.

Once a blue whale or sperm whale is sighted – the network of local fishermen use their mobile phones to share and pass on this information quickly to local Dili-based, commercial whale tour operators.  In other countries, successful commercial whale watching relies heavily on ‘spotter planes’ with individual operators hiring small aircraft to identify the number and precise location of whales.  In Timor-Leste, the local ‘whale spotter network’ at Subaun is not only helping tour operators to locate whales and improve the whale tourism experience – but it is also providing knowledge and extraordinary insights into Timor-Leste’s whales and dolphins.

Photo: 1. Children from We-Ua (Marmore, Subaun) learning about whales and dolphins using online resources; Photo 2. Small young Pygmy Blue Whale calves were often seen close to their mothers. Photo c. Potenzo Lopes

Like many subsistence fishers, local fishers in Timor-Leste are great observers of the ocean and marine life.  This extraordinary local knowledge and skills combined with training in ‘citizen science’ – recognising the blows of animals, and distinctive features – have also enabled fishers to identify different whale and dolphin species, including from their whale blows from long distances away.

With local fishermen fishing daily, and coastal villages nestled close to small local beaches – local whale spotters have recorded hundreds of Pygmy Blue Whales every year, including single adult whales, and mothers with their young calves – and also, large pods of Sperm Whales and dolphins.  They have also, heard individual whales blowing as they passed through the still of the night.  The coastal mountains of Subaun also provide cliffs and hillsides with excellent panoramic views of the ocean, to enable whales to be spotted both, inshore and far offshore; and also, to record the movements and behaviour of whales, including feeding behaviour.  Using drone technology, ‘close-up’ photographs of individuals whales are also providing us with excellent information about the body condition and overall health of individual animals.

Potenzo, an accomplished nature-photographer, conservationist and science communicator is perfectly suited to supervise this citizen science and community outreach and education program.  Previously employed with BirdLife International, Potenzo honed his technical photographic and research skills recording and photographing Timor-Leste birds.  Birds, like whales, move fast and often over long distances.  And yes, like birds, a great deal of skill and patience is required to capture good images of whales !

This citizen science whale program in Timor-Leste is not only extremely valuable for local whale tour operations in providing ‘real-time’ daily sightings of whales – but it has also strengthened the cooperation and relationships between whale researchers, local tour operators and local fishermen.  With local tour operators sharing whale sightings information, behaviour observations, and also, photographs and videos of whales – underwater, above water and also, from drones.

For the small nation of Timor-Leste, the whale watching industry has been growing rapidly over the past few years, with a great deal of international and domestic tourism interest.  With some of the world’s best whale-watching – local whale tourism operators in Timor-Leste are committed to a sustainable whale tourism industry and ‘world-class’ whale-watching standards to protect the country’s globally-significant populations of whales, dolphins and dugongs. Photo: ATM-TL Marine Wildlife Officer, Potenzo Lopes aboard his whale spotting canoe with local Subaun fisherman, Faustino Mauloko da Cunha.

Tour operators also understand that knowledge, information and monitoring is also essential and critical to ensure a sustainable industry. While national whale-watching Guidelines for Timor-Leste were launched last year, adopting global standards – Government regulations are yet to be passed.  Recognising this gap, the Assosiasaun Turizmu Maritima Timor-Leste (or ATM-TL), Timor-Leste’s national marine tourism association, established an industry certification scheme, specifically to support global ‘best practice’ whale-watching – and promote ‘responsible whale tour operators’. A key component of the certification includes the provision and sharing of whale and dolphin sightings and information from tour operations – to support the ongoing monitoring, conservation and management of Timor-Leste extraordinary whale and dolphin species and populations.

Since 2020, the ‘Responsible Whale Tour Operator’ certification allows enable tourists to easily identify tour operators who are committed to the national Guidelines and global ‘best practice’ whale-watching – including operators who are committed to science, knowledge and improved understanding of these majestic and iconic marine animals.

And with operators increasingly including whale science, conservation and education as a vital and integral part of the whale tourism experience – this is indeed, excellent news for Timor-Leste’s whales, and for tourists.  And for the future of the whale tourism industry in Timor-Leste.

Professor Karen Edyvane

National University of Timor-Leste

President, Assosiasaun Turizmu Maritima iha Timor Leste

The Timor-Leste ‘whale spotter program’ is supported with a grant from the USAID TfA program. And builds on 5 years of whale and dolphin research, monitoring and ‘citizen science’ led by the National University of Timor-Leste, in collaboration with the newly-established ATM-TL (Marine Tourism Association of Timor-Leste).