Diving in Bali – Tulamben and beyond

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Diving in Bali – Tulamben and beyond

Bali – Island of the Gods

Lying within the so-called Coral Triangle*, Bali is not only a popular holiday destination for surfers, families and backpackers, it is also a mecca for divers who are drawn to the island by its underwater wonders. For the DiveBuzz team, this would be our second visit to the famous Tulamben region (which tells you how good it really is!), and we couldn’t wait to find out what was buzzing beneath the surface of this lush, tropical island.

Our first stop was Kubu just north of Tulamben, a small village in the foothills of the monstrous Mount Agung Volcano, situated on the islands north east coast. Towering at 3142m, this still active volcano is the highest peak on Bali and dominates not only the local landscape, but also the climate and topography. Driving towards this region, an obvious change in landscape can be noted, the lush tropical terraced rice paddies being replaced by a more arid and barren landscape as we approached the coast. Looking back across the paddy fields with Mount Agung Volcano dominating the horizon, you can see why Bali is known as the Island of the Gods.

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Diving the Liberty wreck

Kubu is perhaps the lesser known sibling of Tulamben, the Balinese town renowned for the USAT Liberty shipwreck and the site of our first Bali DiveBuzz. This 120m long ex US Army supply ship was torpedoed by the Japanese during World War II in the neighbouring island of Lombok. The ship was deemed irreparable and was towed to Bali for wrecking. Lying for many years on the rocky beach at Tulamben, it was not until the last Mount Agung eruption in 1963 and the associated tremors that pushed the wreck back into the ocean. Now lying in approx 30m of water, this spectacular wreck is encrusted with coral, creating a magnet for marine life and a spectacular shore dive.

Entering from the rocky shoreline proved quite challenging. A combination of uneven large pebbles, large sets of waves and delicate camera gear made the entry interesting to say the least! Beyond the sets of waves, we made our descent down to what, on first sight, appeared to be a barren underwater landscape of black volcanic sand. The barren landscape, as we soon discovered, hides a myriad of marine life and diversity. At first, we spot a family of Clarks Anemone fish, busily guarding their territory on their lonesome host anemone. Then, a tiny white nudibranch crawling over the blackness. Then another and another. Then a crab, a mantis shrimp and an octopus. This black desert is alive and I am starting to wish I had brought my macro lens!

Continuing down the black sand slope, I glance up and am rewarded with a school of Bumphead Parrot fish gliding by in the early morning light and a tremendous silver glisten in the distance. I pause and focus, the silver glisten is a mass of schooling Jacks, rhythmically circling and mesmerising. I pose for the obligatory “diver with Jacks” shots before I realise I am suddenly upon the stern of the wreck.

Navigating around the wreck, I am in awe of the beauty. Broken up and encrusted in hard and soft corals, hydroids, barrel sponges, sea fans, sea squirts and sea whips, this is a very special place indeed. Colourful Anthias pulsate on the wreck, Batfish, Coral Trout and Sweetlips hover motionless, a Giant Moray slowly opens and closes his jaw in what seems to be in rhythm with the Anthias. Garden Eels sway forwards and backwards, Sanddivers dart, Gobies stand guard and Pufferfish hide. I feel like a child in a lolly shop!

I had dived the Liberty several years previously and had harboured fond memories of this place. Going back, I was apprehensive to see whether this place was as good as I had remembered. I was not disappointed.

Alas, the Liberty has, to some extent, become a victim of its own success. Hundreds of divers from around the island make the daily pilgrimage to witness the delights the wreck has to offer. For me, crowds of divers with tank bangers, rattles and clangers and reef pointers and air horns and strobes and fins and sand clouds, and often a lack of awareness or etiquette for other divers, are a sure fire way to ruin a dive regardless of how special the place is! To avoid the mid day rush, stay close by and dive early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, when all the day trippers have left.

We completed several dives on the wreck, by far the most memorable ones being the sunrise and sunset ones where we almost had the place to ourselves (bliss!). If you are heading to the region primarily for the wreck, I recommend actually staying in Tulamben or neighbouring Kubu or Seraya, rather than further afield. A Tulamben base guarantees that you get to see the best of the wreck whilst maximising your beauty sleep!

There’s alot more to Tulamben than just the Liberty wreck

Whilst hoards of visitors are drawn to Tulamben for the Liberty, DiveBuzz quickly discovered that the region has much more on offer than just a world class wreck. Just south of the wreck, and well within walking distance, you will be greeted with vibrant coral gardens in the shallows then sloping terrain that drops down to 100 metres and beyond. Several cleaning stations on the slopes offer some great photo opportunities with Moray Eels and supersized Coral Trout waiting patiently for their turn. If you are extremely lucky, you may see a Mola Mola, so keep one eye out on the deep blue. On a tiny cleaning station, no larger than 1 metre square, I counted six different types of cleaner shrimp alone. I gently pushed in the cleaning queue and was rewarded by a careful manicure and dental hygiene session by several accommodating cleaner shrimps!

The excellent dive site ‘Drop Off’, again in Tulamben, offers something for everyone. Great macro opportunities ranging from the hairy Orangutan Crabs to tiny Pygmy Seahorses all set against a magnificent backdrop. As this is a wall dive, it can be dived at multiple levels, matched to your level of experience. For all those budding photographers out there, huge Gorgonian Fans, overhangs, vibrant corals and a plethora of marine life make this a great wide angle dive too.

Batu Kelebit, located south east of the Drop Off and accessed via a short boat trip, is renowned for having the best visibility in the local area. Again, the site offers an array of vibrant and healthy corals and sponges, macro opportunities as well as schooling pelagics including Barracuda and Trevally.

Seraya Secrets and the Kubu house reef

We also completed a number of dives on the Kubu house reef, which had heaps of resident Lionfish, as well as their own Pigmy Seahorse. And the best bit: we usually had the whole dive site to ourselves. We also had a day in Seraya, a well renowned area just south of Tulamben famous for its macro delights scattered across a seemingly barren black volcanic sand seascape. Both areas, worthy dives in their own right and again, both shore dives. At Seraya, in particular, an experienced local guide is worth their weight in gold, particularly for spotting the more unusual animals, many of which do not venture far, but are often hard to spot. All the shots of more unusual critters featured in this story were taken at Seraya Secrets, a dive site aptly named by Michale AW.

In all, we completed 20 dives over 5 days in the Tulamben region and were not disappointed in the least. The Liberty wreck is indeed a great dive and a magical place. Personally, Drop Off was a personal favourite of mine. Despite the crowds of day trippers who visit primarily for the wreck, the area still offers some pristine diving, superb diversity and it is possible to steer clear of the crowds with a little informed planning.

I don’t like ending on a low, however, one observation that concerns me despite the clear diversity of life was the lack of sharks. During our stay, we did not see one single shark in the area. I believe that after completing 20 dives in an area known for pelagics, no shark sightings is either extremely unlucky or a sign of deeper issues. I am hoping that we were just unlucky, I suspect not, however. Is this another clear sign of the world’s relentless and ever increasing appetite for shark fins? Food for thought indeed.

Getting there and useful facts: Tulamben is located on the north east coast of Bali, less than 100km from the capital, Denpassar. Travel times can vary widely given Bali’s busy traffic conditions, to be safe, allow 3 hours for the journey by car. If you book accommodation in advance, they will also be able to organise your transport to Tulamben.

We have stayed and dived with Tulamben Wreck Divers in Tulamben, in a perfect location just over the road from the Liberty Wreck and efficiently run by owners Tony Medcraft and Wayan. We have also stayed and dived with Kubu Indah Dive Resort a few kilometres up the road in Kubu, set in it’s own grounds, complete with its own house reef, and we can highly recommend them both.

* The Coral Triangle is a recognised area of marine biodiversity possessing the highest level of coral and coral reef fish diversity in the world. Geographically, the area encompasses the roughly triangular area of tropical waters surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines, The Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

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