40 marine science students from the National University of Timor-Leste had the opportunity to study the renowned coral reefs and marine biodiversity of Atauro island in a training program conducted by Compass Diving. The program, which was supported by a grant from USAID’s Tourism For All Project, aimed to develop the students’ understanding of the underwater environment and sustainable marine tourism, through field experience.
The 6-day program was divided into two sections: in-water activities and learning sessions. For many of the young scientists, it was their first experience of snorkeling in the ocean and to see the creatures they had been studying in their natural habitat. Each student was also given the opportunity to take part in a closely-supervised scuba dive – an experience described by one participant as “a dream come true” – and a whale-spotting excursion.
The theory presentations covered a wide range of topics related to marine tourism from fish and coral identification and conservation to the potential and challenges facing the whale-watching and dive tourism industries.
The connections between marine tourism and conservation were examined, focusing on possible collaborative links between marine tourism activities and marine conservation efforts. The presentations encompassed topics such as the development of marine protected areas partially-funded by tourism activities and how tourism can contribute to offset any commercial practices that might pressure fragile marine ecosystem. Participants also had the opportunity to visit tourism businesses and the communities that depend on local fisheries for their livelihoods. When visiting Beloi market, the students took note of how many vulnerable species were part of the catch and developed an awareness of the importance of sharing information with the local fishermen about the need to protect the reef, which is important both to maintain fish stocks and also for the tourism industry.
They also paid a visit to Vila-Maumeta village and three establishments that were developed as community projects. Participants engaged in a discussion on the importance of embracing the local community when trying to develop tourism in any location. The concept that community interactions could, sometimes, leave memories just as lasting and fond as the tourist activities themselves was brought up for reflection.
One of the other subjects covered by the program was ocean pollution. The students participated in a beach clean-up activity on the village of Beloi, and discussed the negative impacts pollution has on the marine environment, such algae blooms and decreasing quality of seafood, among other factors. As part of the workshop, students identified the components of the rubbish that was collected on the beach and considered simple individual actions to avoid contributing to marine pollution.
Program leader Cassio Schumacher said: “The participants’ energy, determination, focus, dedication and sheer awe with the in-water activities has been a great, great pleasure to witness and allows us to share the hope of these very same students to possibly pursue a career in the infant marine tourism industry of Timor-Leste or in activities related to conservation of the incredibly biodiverse marine life of the Ombai-Wetar Strait”.
Timor-Leste is one of the world’s hot spots for migrating cetaceans, which pass through every year in October and November, and its waters are also home to resident populations of dolphins, pilot whales and other marine mammals. Schumacher said that one of the highlights of the program was spotting a whale after a snorkeling session: “The joyful moments, the expression of astonishment upon seeing a whale surfacing close to the boat. It was a great opportunity to further strengthen the bond between them and the ocean surrounding their country.”
The program will have an enduring legacy in the continuing commitment of the students to sharing their experiences and passion for conservation with the public.
Remigio D. Boavida Freitas, a student originally from the district of Baucau – a place where reports of illegal shark and turtle fishing are common – commented: “It was great to learn more about the importance of sharks to our ecosystem and even how important they can be for tourism as visitors would be happy to see more sharks in our waters. When coming back to my district, I will try to talk with the community leaders in order to bring this information to the people from my village.”
On the final night of the field trip, Deonisio Barreto Viana Rangel summed up his experience: “Having the chance to participate in this program and learn more about tourism, our oceans and also to feel part of this environment is something we appreciate so much. Knowing that such opportunities don’t come around all the time, we hope to continue spreading the messages about the importance of tourism and conservation to our friends and family.”
Source: Compass Diving