Australian scientists hope that a hot spot of whale and dolphin activity near East Timor will spark an ecotourism boom for the fledgling nation.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science has been surveying marine life off East Timor's coast and has discovered a migratory corridor used by at least 10 species of whales and dolphins. Among them is the world's biggest mammal, the blue whale.
Scientists say the animals have been found in huge numbers in the area, prompting hopes that the concentration of wildlife will attract tourists to East Timor, one of Asia's poorest countries.
Karen Edyvane, a professor at the institute, says to find so many whales and dolphins in one place is extraordinary.
"Marine biologists only get an experience like this probably once every 10 years where you come across a natural phenomenon like this where it completely blows your mind," Edyvane said.
Ecotourism is a fast growing trend in the world and the discovery could be a welcome boost to East Timor's economy. Whale-watching tours, in which tourists are taken in boats to see the endangered animals, have been lucrative for many island nations.
East Timor needs all the financial help it can get. Along with its oil and gas reserves, tourism could breathe life into the economy.
It has been difficult for East Timor since independence from Indonesia in 2002. It suffers from ethnic and regional divisions, and youth unemployment is above 60 percent.
A rebellion by disaffected soldiers in 2006 triggered fighting that killed 37 people and forced 150,000 from their homes. It forced the emergency intervention of peacekeepers from Australia, Portugal, Malaysia and New Zealand.
In February, the president, Jose Ramos-Horta, was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao also came under fire, but escaped unhurt.