Reconnecting with the ocean in Timor-Leste

Asiem Sanyal

Asiem Sanyal, a Blue Ventures Science Manager based in Timor-Leste, reflects on his work supporting the first coral reef monitoring program run by local Timorese divers and encourages us all to engage as much as we can with nature and the ocean.

Image © Andy Mann

Asiem Sanyal

Image © Andy Mann

I joined Blue Ventures in 2019. I was initially working as a field scientist based on the idyllic island of Atauro, a small Timorese island that has been described by researchers as having the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world.

But now I am based in Dili, the capital.

Asiem giving a lecture on coral reefs in his role as a Blue Ventures Science Manager in Timor-Leste · William Schrier / Blue Ventures

What I love most about the ocean is its sheer immensity. It has always reminded me of just how minute we all are in the scheme of things while also instilling in me a profound sense of tranquillity and joy whenever I am near it or in it.

This love and admiration for the ocean, and a bit of luck, is actually what led me to work with Blue Ventures. As a marine biologist and conservationist, the Coral Triangle region—renowned for its wealth of biodiversity—has always fascinated me; and inspired by its “communities-first” approach, I had wanted to work with Blue Ventures for a long time. When an opportunity came up, needless to say, I jumped on it immediately. 

One of the world’s best kept secrets, the country of Timor-Leste has recently begun to attract global attention due its remarkable marine treasures.
Timor-Leste is located in the Coral Triangle, known as Earth’s most biodiverse tropical marine region · Cristina Mittermeier

As an organization, Blue Ventures develops transformative approaches for catalyzing and sustaining locally led marine conservation. Working with both international volunteers and local people, we have been collecting data on coral reefs, fish, invertebrates, and the impacts of human activities on the reef ecosystems around Atauro. We have also conducted surveys of cetaceans—aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins—around Atauro Island and off the coast of Dili.

Through our community-led conservation program, we have been working with local communities both on Atauro and around Dili, providing tools and technical support to aid the creation of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). LMMAs are areas of the ocean managed by coastal communities. This approach supports the development of alternative livelihoods, helping to empower Timorese people to assume stewardship of their ocean resources.

A pod of dwarf spinner dolphins showing off their agility off the coast of Timor-Leste · William Schrier / Blue Ventures

What is truly unique about Timor-Leste is its staggering marine biodiversity—on every one of my dives there I have seen something new. I’m also a biogeography enthusiast, so I’m fascinated by the fact that Weber’s line runs very close to Timor-Leste, as it represents a region where Asian and Australian fauna and flora converge (between the Sunda and Sahul Shelves). This makes both the marine and terrestrial biodiversity of the country incredibly exciting and captivating.

Additionally, on our dives in Timor-Leste, especially around Atauro, we have not yet observed signs of large-scale coral bleaching or other significant decline in the health of marine ecosystems. Thus, we still have opportunities to proactively establish measures for protecting these incredible marine resources. This is actually what keeps me hopeful in the face of climate change and the global decline in ocean health due to poorly regulated human activities.

Asiem’s work includes supporting the first coral reef monitoring program in Timor-Leste operated by local divers · Ryan Lewis / Blue Ventures
The people of Timor-Leste have a strong connection with the seas around them, and in my experience, I have found them to be highly committed to conserving this wealth of biodiversity.

But there is so much work to do. Despite a tremendous boost in our understanding of oceanic processes over the past few decades, we still know very little about the oceans. From both a scientific and philosophical point of view, the oceans teach me something new every day, and this inspires me to work toward conserving them. 

The recent changes in approach to ocean conservation are highly encouraging. Local communities’ understanding of the ocean has often seemed at odds with scientific knowledge, but the traditional wisdom of fishers in Timor-Leste, for example, has always centered on how to live sustainably on what the ocean provides. Local communities are constantly learning from the ocean, with an attitude of deep respect toward its resources because they know they depend on them. This is why we are working to establish the first coral reef monitoring program in Timor-Leste operated by Timorese divers. We need the leadership and participation of local communities in marine resource decision-making.

The sun rising over Beloi Beach, Atauro Island, where the day starts early · Christina Saylor / Blue Ventures

My message to people is to engage more with nature: go out for walks, go hiking, and go visit lakes and the ocean, and swim in them if you can. We have become so detached from nature that we find it difficult to engage with and feel affected by ocean issues. Rediscovering that connection to the natural world, and to the ocean, can be the first step to solving some of our planet’s most pressing challenges.

Asiem and Blue Ventures are working with local communities in Timor-Leste to establish the first coral reef monitoring program run by Timorese divers on Atauro Island. You can support projects like this by joining The Tide.

Asiem Sanyal

Science Manager, Blue Ventures

Asiem is currently a Blue Ventures Science Manager based in Timor-Leste. His work involves developing and managing Blue Ventures’ science and conservation program, supporting and mentoring the conservation team in their activities, and liaising with partner organizations to ensure the ongoing work to support the conservation program.

Blue Ventures

Locally led marine conservation

Blue Ventures is a science-led social enterprise that develops transformative approaches for nurturing and sustaining locally led marine conservation. The organization works in partnership with coastal communities in places where the ocean is vital to the culture and economy.

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