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Wawata Topu: The women divers sustainably managing coastal resources

Cristina Mittermeier

On the island of Atauro, located in the young Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste, a group of resourceful and skilled women fishers have broken away from traditional gender roles to provide for their families.

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeier

Image © Cristina Mittermeier

When we are fast asleep, our minds wander in and out of the familiar, the strange, and the fantastic.

Waking up, we are often unable to distinguish what is real from what we have dreamed.

This is how I feel when I am immersed in my work as a photographer. Part of my creative process is to pre-imagine, almost obsessively, the images needed to tell a story. Then once I am actually making the photographs, it is as if I meld with the experience, becoming unaware of space and time.

While on assignment in Timor-Leste, an island country in Southeast Asia ringed by sublime coral reefs, I was fortunate enough to witness one of my visions materializing just as I had imagined it.

The waters surrounding the island of Atauro in Timor-Leste have been described by researchers as the most biodiverse in the world · Cristina Mittermeier

A vision in color

It was the very first week of our expedition to Timor-Leste. We had come to work for several days on Atauro, a small island located 25 kilometers north of the capital, Dili.

The scorching heat of the midday sun had chased our small team under a thatched hut at the edge of the beach. I was trying to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes, when I caught sight of a woman in the distance. At once, I knew that I had seen her before—in my imagination. Appearing like a mirage, she was slowly wading through the shallow waters, a bright blur of color against the lapping waves.

Rising quickly from the wooden bench where I was sitting, I grabbed a handheld action camera before half walking, half running toward the woman in the ocean. I watched her labored steps. I pictured her lipa—a long, colorful cloth traditionally tied around the waist by the Timorese people—being swayed and swirled by the sun-speckled water as she struggled to move her feet through the resistant sea.

Poised between a dream and reality, I could not guess at what would happen next. I let myself be overtaken by the sequence of events—just as I had a few days earlier when I spent precious time diving with the women of Atauro, who taught me the meaning of a Timorese custom embodying the harmonization of people and their environment.

Tara bandu

As in many places around the world, the role of women in fishing industries in Timor-Leste goes largely unrecognized. Yet they make up almost half the global workforce, typically contributing to small-scale operations considered far more sustainable than commercial fishing.

To provide for their families, the women of Atauro have taken to the sea. Steeped in strict religious traditions and social norms, Atauro has not always accepted women participating in community fishing. But when your island is too dry to grow much food and has very little freshwater for farming, defined gender roles relax over time. Everyone has to pull together to survive. As islanders, they naturally turn to the ocean for their bread basket. And while in the past men went out to sea and women stayed on land, the community on Atauro has now broken away from this narrative.

Women account for up to half of the global fisheries workforce, typically working in small-scale coastal operations · Cristina Mittermeier

From a young age, girls fish alongside their mothers, bundles of nets, lines, and hooks spilling out of their arms. What makes Atauro unique is that the women, especially those who are not married or who do not have the means to own a boat, have organized themselves as a unit, teaching each other to freedive and engaging in collective resource management. Routinely going out to the reef to fish all together, they decided on a name for themselves: Wawata Topu meaning “women divers” in the Rasua dialect, or “mermaids of Atauro Island.”

The women divers of Atauro have a mindset anchored in the desire to gather enough nourishment for their families without destroying the reef. This is the reason they have adopted a form of cultural protection called

In Tetum, one of the languages spoken in Timor-Leste, bandu translates as “prohibition.” Through the power of public agreement, tara bandu places a ban on specific activities within clear boundaries of land, or in this case, sea. The mermaids use tara bandu to conserve coastal resources, so that fish populations recover and overfishing is prevented—similar to how a modern marine protected area works.

For the women of Atauro, heading out into the ocean to fish together is a joyous activity. So when they asked me to join them, I was filled with delight.

Diving with mermaids

We met on the beach, in the freshness of the morning before the sun would reach searing temperatures. Waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, two older women chatted purposefully, while a few younger girls giggled and gossiped. The girls were as young as six or seven years old, probably invited along to learn the difficult set of skills necessary to spear fish at the same time as staying safe.

Climbing into a canoe made from a hollowed-out tree, the women huddled close together, pushed off the shore, and paddled out to the reef. Slightly encumbered by my diving kit and film equipment, I swam alongside and did my best to keep up. Then, one by one, wearing an assortment of lipas, flip-flops, and homemade goggles, the mermaids all jumped into the water.

The women divers of Atauro paddle out to the reef in a hollowed-out canoe · Cristina Mittermeier

Because Atauro Island has strong Protestant and conservative influences, the women are modest and demure on land. In water, however, they are truly glorious and uninhibited. The most skilled divers are able to swim 20 feet down. I was captivated by the grace and confidence of the mermaids as they searched for flame-colored lobsters and fast-moving fish hiding in reef cavities, carrying spears of entwined clothes hangers and rubber bands. I felt sad when an exquisite octopus was spotted by one of the younger girls and instantly captured in a cloud of panicked ink. But I was grateful to see how the ocean was benefiting the community and to have been nearby so I could at least record its final moments.

As I dove in a multitude of directions under the water, discovering new secrets hidden in the folds and crevasses of the reef at every turn, my mind wandered down just as many pathways. I thought about the symbolic value of all these images before my eyes, showing how a locally managed and well-protected reef can sustain a coastal community. I thought about the need for community management like that of the mermaids and tara bandu to be a fundamental underpinning of “blue economies”—the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and ecosystem health.

Faced with the huge global challenges brought about by climate change, it is imperative that we find ways to maintain the viability of limited resources—not only now, but generations into the future—and especially for the most disproportionately affected communities.
The most skilled divers from Atauro are able to swim 20 feet down into the sea · Cristina Mittermeier
“What makes Atauro unique is that the women … have organized themselves as a unit, teaching each other to freedive and engaging in collective resource management.” · Cristina Mittermeier
Some of the women divers choose to fish with spears made of clothes hangers and rubber bands · Cristina Mittermeier

A song for nature

Bringing my mind back to the present, I left my sandals on the beach in the sweltering heat and stepped, fully clothed, into the sea. I was both eager and hesitant to meet the woman walking in the water, dressed in a colorful lipa, who I had visualized in a dream. I moved slowly through the shallow surf, hoping she would not be startled by my sudden approach. 

As I got closer, I could finally see that the woman was fishing. I had never encountered such an ingenious method of fishing before. It was beautiful. Around her floated four or five tiny wooden boats. A fishing line was wrapped around each boat and then attached to a small hook with bait at the end. Every time a fish took the bait, the corresponding boat would bob around, pulled by the fish struggling to break free. Making gentle strides, the woman would reach for her prey, before putting it in the basket she was carrying on her back.

Checking all her boats at intervals, she circled round and round. Then, in counterpoint with her deft and graceful movements, she began to sing. The crisp sound of her voice rose above the waves as she chanted, “Obrigada pela Natureza / Hallelujah / Obrigada pela Natureza / Hallelujah.” As a former colony of Portugal, Timor-Leste has retained fragments of Portuguese. It took me a moment or two to do the translation in my head, but once I understood, tears welled up in my eyes. The woman was giving thanks for nature.

I was now only about ten feet away from the woman. Turning to look at me, she shyly went quiet. I felt like an intruder, so I smiled broadly and introduced myself in Portuguese, saying my name and pointing to my camera. Her facial expression changed from a worried frown into a wide smile. “My name is Sara,” she said. And as she reached out her hand to me, she began to softly sing again. While she checked her tiny boats, I followed, still smiling. I am neither a religious person nor a singer, but somehow I felt a deep sense of kinship with this gentle woman. So in a quiet voice, I joined in her song.

In the dreamlike period of time I spent with Sara, and with the mermaids, I did not feel like the “other”. I felt like the women of Atauro and I were part of a sisterhood. Following the lead of these resourceful and skilled women fishers, I too felt grateful—for the fish, for the ocean, and for tara bandu, which protects the reefs feeding their island community.

The women of Atauro are passing down their diving and fishing skills to the next generations · Cristina Mittermeier
Contributors

Cristina Mittermeier

Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

Born in Mexico, Cristina Mittermeier is a marine biologist, photographer, and writer known for her use of powerful and emotive imagery to propel conservation efforts. For the past 25 years, her work has centered on the delicate balance between human well-being and healthy ecosystems. Cristina is the co-founder of SeaLegacy, a nonprofit invested in the health and sustainability of the ocean, and of Only One.

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