Global whale "hot spot" discovered off East Timor

CANBERRA Wed Dec 31, 2008 12:55am EST

A blue whale surfaces in a file photo. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A blue whale surfaces in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

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CANBERRA (Reuters) - One of the world's highest concentrations of dolphins and whales -- many of them protected species -- has been discovered off the coast of East Timor, local and Australian researchers said on Wednesday.

A "hot spot" of marine cetaceans migrating through deep channels off the Timor coast, including blue and beaked whales, short-finned pilot whales, melon headed whales and six dolphin species was uncovered in a study for the Timor government.

"We were all amazed to see such an abundance, diversity and density of cetaceans. Most of them are actually protected," principal scientist Karen Edyvane told Reuters.

"It's among the world's hot spots for cetaceans," she said.

The survey was done by East Timorese researchers and experts from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, working from a traditional 20-meter wooden Indonesian vessel.

Deep ocean channels of the Wetar and Ombai straits, which plummet more than 3,000 meters (9,800 ft), were a major migratory route for marine wildlife moving between the Pacific and Indian oceans, including large sharks and turtles, the study found.

The channels are also used by U.S. nuclear and Australian navy submarines traveling through the Indonesian islands.

The research highlighted the threat posed by unregulated fishing in the region as cash-strapped East Timor looks to develop its fishing industry while searching out potentially lucrative eco-tourism opportunities like whale-watching.

"We are committed to ensuring that this marine biodiversity is protected," said Celestino Barreto de Cunha, director of fisheries management for East Timor's government.

In just one day, more than 1,000 individuals and possibly as many as 2,000 whales in eight separate pods -- each one containing up to 400 mammals -- were spotted over a 50-kilometer (31-mile) stretch of coast, Edyvane said.

Concentrations were similar to those near Antarctica, where Japan's whaling fleet is currently carrying out its yearly five-month research hunt, chased by anti-whaling activists.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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