Timor-Leste

SES Elodie Sandford Explorer for 2019 by Catherine Kim

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I am excited to announce I have been selected as the Scientific Exploration Society’s Elodie Sanford Explorer Awardee for Amateur Photography! Elodie Sanford was an avid photographer, explorer, and honorary Vice President of the SES. It is an honor to continue on her legacy as a pioneer with a purpose investigating Tara bandu in Timor-Leste.

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I focused my PhD research on the coral reef ecology of Timor-Leste. It became apparent that the cultural, socio-economic, and environmental aspects of society were very much intertwined. On my second field trip, I learned that my site on Atauro Island had been designated as a locally managed marine area (LMMA) just weeks before through Tara bandu, or customary law. This meant that no fishing was allowed on the protected reef and as a visitor, I had to pay a small fee to SCUBA dive for my research. Although I was focusing on the corals for my surveys, it looked “fishier” than I had remembered! There were these large schools of fish I did not recall seeing previously, however, it had been almost 18 months since my last dive here.

Fish SCUBA diving off Beloi Barrier Reef on Atauro Island Timor-Leste.

I am very excited to be returning to Timor-Leste to learn more about the communities involved in marine conservation efforts. Thank you to the Scientific Exploration Society and the friends and family of Elodie Sanford! Stay tuned to learn more about my adventures!

Post-Bleaching Surveys in Timor-Leste by Catherine Kim

Coral surveys back in Timor-Leste. Photo: F Ryan

A year and a half ago, I did my first coral health surveys in Timor-Leste for my PhD research.  Since then, it has been a big year for coral reefs with the largest global coral bleaching event in history in 2016.  Coral bleaching is caused by stressful environmental conditions, like high ocean water temperatures, that cause the tiny algae living in coral tissue to be expelled.  This results in white or ‘bleached’ looking corals.  This is important because the algae and coral form a symbiotic partnership where the coral provides a home for the algae and, in return, the algae provides food for the coral.  Corals can regain their algae and recover or, if the corals are bleached for too long, can die.  In some areas like the Great Barrier Reef and Hawai‘i, the coral mortality due to bleaching was well-documented, but many countries lack the ability to regularly monitor their reefs.

Timor-Leste is the newest member state of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity with over 600 species of corals.  The Coral Triangle encompasses 30% of coral reefs globally; however, little is known about how this area was affected by the mass bleaching event through 2016.  With funding from the Estate of Winifred Violet Scott, I just finished resurveying my sites in Timor-Leste and collecting the temperature loggers I deployed on the reef in November 2015.  The sites look similar to my first surveys a year-and-a-half ago.  This is promising news as it indicates that Timorese reefs may not be as susceptible to climatic changes such as ocean warming that threaten reefs worldwide.  However, there are a myriad of other threats such as pollution and overfishing that affect these reefs, but eliminating coral bleaching as a major threat for Timorese reefs gives hope that reefs here can thrive and continue to support the people who rely on them with proper management.