April 2012: Tulamben Bay and the USAT Liberty Wreck, Bali, Indonesia

Sunday April 29th 2012

For the next few days into early May I’ll be exploring the crystal clear waters of Bali with some fellow divers.  Also known as the Island of a Thousand Puras or the Island of the Gods, Bali lies between Java and Lombok.  Just 140km by 80km, there are bright green rice paddies, pristine beaches and volcanoes, the main one being Gunung Agung which the polite and friendly locals consider sacred.  The island is also famous for sugar cane, coffee, fruit and vegetables, woodcarving, handcrafts and sarongs.  But despite the beauty and appeal around us, it’s the sea that has brought us here.  We flew into Denpasar and arrived in Candidasa on the northeast coast for the start of our Bali adventure.

Originally a less well-known diving destination, Bali has now become something of a tropical paradise with plenty of varied and widespread dive sites.  The main ones are north and northeast, with everything on offer from small nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs to cuttlefish, lion fish and huge wrasses.  As the sites are widely spaced out around the island, there is plenty of driving involved to get from one to the next.  Divers can enjoy deep drop-offs, coral ridges, coral gardens, the Lombok Strait (a deep water trench containing powerful currents that can be nerve-wracking for a beginner but also offer great visibility and a bit of a challenge!) and one of the most famous wrecks in the world, the USAT Liberty where our dives kicked off today.

The USAT Liberty sank during the Second World War after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Lombok Strait.  Today it lies 9-30m deep in Tulamben Bay, an area of black sand and rock.  The 120m-long wreck is of course huge, and clearly shows just how quickly a marine ecosystem can develop – it is teeming with life.

Our guides carried our equipment down to the pebble beach and helped us prepare.  We geared up at the water’s edge and wobbled across the pebbles to enter the water.  Upon descent, we swam straight ahead, watching the pebbles disappear and be replaced by a black volcanic sandy slope around 8-9m.  Before too long, the outline of the wreck began to emerge.  Visibility wasn’t the best and made the wreck seem quite eery, slowly emerging from the dark depths below.  On approach we swam left alongside the ship which is decked in sponges and soft coral fans, both host to an array of marine creatures such as wrasses, butterfly fish, angel fish, eels, parrot fish and a huge swirling school of big eye jack fish almost immediately upon descent.  The wreck is full of nooks, crannies, ledges and crevices which are great spots for getting up close to anything interesting and taking photos.  Together with our guide, my buddy and I stayed quite close to the surface as it had been a while since our last dives, but we looked down at the huge impressive formation spread out below us, and had enough sunlight to clearly see the different fish and coral.  With water temperatures between 29-31 degrees Celsius, the dive was extremely comfortable.

While wrecks appear deep, dark, mysterious and even dangerous, for many they are educational, exciting and an adventure.  A basic wreck dive such as ours today involves simply swimming alongside or over the vessel, admiring all the creatures that have made the wreck their home, and taking lots of pictures.  It gets more risky when the diver decides to penetrate the vessel.  One thing to be aware of is the possibility of becoming caught or tangled up in something, so carrying a dive knife is a good idea.  There is always a chance of problems – becoming lost, being left in the dark (if your light fails) or injury (accidentally touching sharp parts of the wreck) .  Some vessels can contain hazardous materials such as heavy containers or metal which mustn’t be interfered with.  Before the dive begins, it’s vital to be familiar with the layout of the wreck and know what you might see during the dive.  In case of poor visibility, it is always useful to carry a light (one main and one backup) and having a guideline attached outside the wreck for ascent and descent could be handy.  Buoyancy control can also make a dive much more fun, as you are not kicking up sand and silt and thus spoiling any photo opportunities.   Above all, a wreck is an underwater graveyard and it’s vital to respect it as such.

Although still slightly apprehensive about wreck diving, swimming over the USAT Liberty made me understand why so many divers enjoy the adventure and excitement that a wreck has to offer.  Exploring the vessel gave me a good introduction to more challenging dives, which I hope to build on in future.  The Liberty is also a great start to diving in Bali.

April’s dives

Dive 1: USAT Liberty: depth: 11.9m, dive time: 54mins, water temp: 31C, entry time: 11:00AM, exit time: 11:54AM, average depth: 7.68m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 5kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw nudibranchs, parrot fish, Moorish Idols and jack fish.

Dive 2: USAT Liberty: depth: 8.5m, dive time: 58mins, water temp: 31C, entry time: 14:30, exit time: 15:28, average depth: 5.14m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw Moorish Idols, fan coral, anemone crabs and parrot fish.

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