By Cailey Rizzo
August 17, 2016
Gerry Allen/Conservation International

A small island in Timor-Leste has been named as the site with the most biodiverse reef on the planet.

A new biological survey determined that there are more species of reef fish at Atauro Island than anywhere else. At each site on the island, conservationists found an average of 253 species, which blows the previous record for biodiversity—216 in West Papua—out of the water.

Atauro Island is only about 14 miles long and six miles wide, and has a population of about 8,000 people.

Mark Erdmann/Conservation International

A team of researchers from Conservation International found a grand total of 642 species of fish around the island during their survey in June. At one site alone, there were 314 different species, some of which were determined to either be completely new species or incredibly rare.

One of the researchers described the waters of Atauro Island as “healthy corals draping the sheer walls that dropped off into the abyss, with shoals of colorful reef fishes made all the more spectacular by the crystal-clear visibility,” in a blog post.

UN Photo/Martine Perret/Conservation International

The island has great potential as a marine ecotourism destination: It sits just a few miles off the coast of Timor-Leste inside an area called the Coral Triangle. The area’s extremely deep waters and strong currents keep the reefs rich with nutrients. Blue whales migrate through the area every year, with several other species of whale and dolphin passing through as well.

However, the government of Timor-Leste has to work to protect and maintain the reefs if they want to create a sustainable tourism destination, according to the team at Conservation International, which saw that several of the reefs had been damaged by blast fishing. They also said that there were several signs of overfishing in the area.

Conservation International is encouraging Timor-Leste to designate the waters around Atauro Island the country’s second marine protected area. That would mean banning commercial fishing in the reef and establishing a few “no-take” areas where fishing or extraction of any kind is not allowed.

Mark Erdmann/Conservation International

Several ecotourism companies already offer excursions to Atauro Island and snorkeling and diving opportunities for visitors to experience the incredible biodiversity for themselves for about $40.

Cailey Rizzo writes about travel, art and culture and is the founding editor of The Local Dive. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @misscaileyanne.