The government of East Timor says it plans to establish a national park to protect a bounty of dolphins and whales — some of them endangered species — recently discovered mingling and feeding off the coast of Asia's youngest country.
But officials say they will need foreign assistance to preserve the area and develop eco-tourism in one of the few places in the world with such numbers and variety of large sea mammals, thanks to its unusual geography and, possibly, to years of relative isolation.
Aerial surveys of the hotspot by scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science recorded "an exceptional diversity and abundance" of dolphins and whales, according to findings recently handed to officials in Dili.
"What you have in East Timor is a period of the year where there really is an incredible diversity of cetacean species, of dolphins in particular, small whales and even large whales," lead scientist Mark Meekan said. "That makes Timor quite unique."
Between April and November, the Australian and Timorese researchers spotted endangered blue whales, sperm whales and sei whales during flights along the island's northern and southern coasts.
Activity peaked in November, when they recorded spinner and spotted dolphins — internationally classified as depleted species — gathered in groups or pods of several hundred and mixing with small whales.
The waters around the mountainous island are squeezed into a narrow, deep sea trench that brings the animals together in vast numbers. More research is needed to learn why they are there and if it is an annual migration route, Meekan said.
The discovery has prompted vows from the Timorese leadership to declare the area a protected national park and develop it for ecotourism. Funding is being sought from the Asian Development Bank, the newly established six-nation Coral Triangle Initiative and other foreign donors, he said.
The marine institute recommended that East Timor promote whale watching and conduct follow-up studies to identify migratory pathways and establish guidelines for protecting species.
Mariano Sabino, the minister for agriculture and fisheries, told The Associated Press in an interview that it has become a priority to implement the recommendations. "It is our moral responsibility to implement them for the affluence of the Timorese people," he said.
Sabino said outside help was essential for the effort, but did not immediately have a firm estimate of how much was needed.
East Timor gained independence in 2002 after four centuries of foreign dominance and a 24-year Indonesian occupation, during which as many 183,000 people were killed, abducted or starved to death.
Tourism had begun to pick up when internal violence flared in 2006, killing dozens and threatening civil war.
The discovery of world-class marine life within a mile (2 kilometers) of East Timor's shores poses an opportunity to help reduce towering unemployment for the country's 1 million people, said Curt Jenner, managing director of the Australian Centre for Whale Research.
"It shows the world that intensely productive areas such as this only exist in a very few and special places on the planet," Jenner said. "If tourism and science can help protect these areas, then that's perfect."