Diving the Liberty shipwreck at sunrise

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At the end of a curvy road, up and down the slopes of Mount Agung, between the jungle and the rice fields, lies the Balinese village of Tulamben on a black pebble beach. Without the periodic wrath of Agung, an active volcano, Tulamben would have stayed a village in the middle of nowhere. Not only is it an incredible macro diving spot where underwater photographers hunt for the denise pygmy seahorse or the “donut” doto nudibranch, but this is where lies one of the most famous shipwrecks worldwide: the USAT Liberty shipwreck, which sank in 1942 and was pushed below the waves when Agung erupted in 1963.

Since the Liberty shipwreck is among the best dive sites in Bali, it is often a crowded dive site. However, the first groups rarely arrive before 9 am. For only a few thousand more rupiahs (hence not a lot), you can dive when the sun rises as early as 6 am. The early-morning wake-up call discourages many, but not me.

Benefits of doing an early morning dive in Tulamben

Liberty shipwreck - Diving in Tulamben - Bali

Here are the main 3 advantages of doing the early morning dive at the Liberty shipwreck:

  • You will be almost on your own. I did this dive several times, and each time, only towards the end of the dive did I finally see another buddy team.
  • There are species you only see at sunrise: This is the case for the bump-head parrot fish. They are pretty big, about 50cm long, and surprisingly, they are not afraid of divers while remaining cautious. Usually, you will see them directly at the beginning of the dive as they are in the first 5m of water around the base of the shipwreck. After the sunrise, they go back into the blue.
  • The low light around the wreck reinforces the mystery and spooky feeling associated with shipwrecks because of their history.

The things we do for the love of diving

Diving in Tulamben - Liberty shipwreck - Bali Indonesia

To be ready to dive at 6 am, you must meet your dive guide at 5:30 am and load your scuba gear onto the jeep. This early start means waking up at 5 am if you’re staying in Tulamben or 4:30 am if in Amed. Most day-trippers, who usually arrive from Sanur around 10 am, miss this early dive because of the three-hour drive. Despite more dive resorts popping up, I found myself alone on Tulamben’s Pebble Beach that morning. As we finished gearing up at 5:55 am, the rising sun’s red glow behind Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok was a mesmerising sight.

Getting into the water here requires a bit of balance, especially early in the morning. With my tank on my back and fins in hand, I gladly took my guide’s hand to navigate the shifting pebbles as I nearly missed falling upside down tank first! Once in the water, the next step is to inflate your BCD and put on your fins (adjustable fins with booties are highly recommended, even though the water is between 28°C and 30°C). We swam on our backs until the fins no longer touched the bottom, then signalled our descent to explore the wreck as the sun took off from the horizon.

The Liberty shipwreck just for myself

Gliding over the black sandy bottom in the dim light of dawn, the silhouette of the wreck slowly appeared. Just 5 meters below the surface, a school of parrotfish, each about a meter long, greeted us briefly before swimming away. Despite the warm waters, the hull is well-preserved, with the deck tilted at a 45-degree angle to starboard, reaching a depth of 28 m.

Descending further, we saw the structures like ladders and hatchways. Alongside, we saw batfish, angelfish, and trumpetfish, all used to scuba divers, doing their business as if you weren’t there. Near the deepest part of the wreck, we safely entered a large cargo hold through an old hatch, where the play of light and shadow between the pillars reminded us of the ship’s tragic past.

Our return to the surface included a safety stop over the black volcanic sand bottom. These three minutes also offered a chance to look for small marine species in the volcanic sediment. Watching garden eels sway from their sandy den during the safety stop was a fantastic way to end the dive. On my first visit to Bali, I saw a spectacular show of jackfish swirling above the wreck, although this seems to be a thing of the past now.

The ease of this shore dive allows for multiple dives in one day. Even with a 6 am start, I managed four dives before I got too tired. The most determined divers can do up to five dives a day. Despite the perfect conditions for diving from dawn until dusk, the early wake-up calls eventually wore me out. To this day, I have yet to do a night dive at the Liberty shipwreck…

My favourite marine encounters at the Liberty shipwreck

While wreck diving is usually all about wide-angle shots of the different rusty parts of the ship, The wreck, covered in marine life after 60 years, is so full of life that you almost forget it’s a shipwreck. You’ll find gorgonians, hard corals, feather stars and sea anemones all along its hull, where clownfish and long-nosed hawkfish like to hide. It’s still a 50/50 for me.

If you love underwater macro photography, you’ll likely spend more time taking close-up portraits of colourful nudibranchs, harlequin ghost pipefish and leaf scorpionfish. You might even forget you are actually diving on a shipwreck. The lucky ones can spot pygmy seahorses, which blend perfectly in colour and texture with a specific type of gorgonians, Muricella Plectana. I still haven’t found any at the Liberty dive site yet, but they can be easily found at the other muck diving sites of Tulamben, such as Seraya Secrets.

My favourite encounters on the Liberty wreck were a white leaf scorpionfish, a ghost pipefish and many nudibranchs I’ve never seen before. There was a tiny green and purple flabellina and a white and brown nudibranch that looked like a little bunny. With additional research, I discovered I had met Flabellina Exoptata and Jorunna Funebris.

When to go diving in Tulamben?

Diving in Tulamben Bali Indonesia

The best period to dive in Tulamben is during the dry season from May to October, but honestly, you can dive in Tulamben all year round. My first trip to Bali was in January. It was supposed to be the worst part of the monsoon, but it was raining at night and maybe 1 or 2 hours during the day. It was still warm in the air and the sea. Nevertheless, the rain brings minerals into the sea and reduces visibility slightly, but only slightly.

When I returned to Tulamben in October, I appreciated better visibility and felt like rediscovering the shipwreck. So it’s up to you, but remember the rainy season also means fewer people and cheaper accommodation prices.

Which dive centre to choose in Tulamben?

Divemaster carrying tanks to the shore - Diving in Tulamben Bali

Tulamben is a shore diving spot, so you can easily scuba dive from sunrise to sunset. It’s a great place for scuba diving addicts looking to dive as much as possible. Dive Concepts centre features a garden where you can relax in the shade with watermelon juice at the surface interval. Their dive centre is only 2 minutes away from the Liberty shipwreck, which is quite an advantage when doing the early morning dive. Their Indonesian divemasters are incredibly skilled and will ensure you see the best of every dive site.

Where to stay in Tulamben?

Matahari Dive Resort - Diving in Tulamben Bali

The Matahari Dive Resort is a local family-run hotel. It was one of the first ones in the area, as it opened in 1991. Located right on the black pebble beach of Tulamben, a 5-minute drive from the Liberty shipwreck, it is my favourite address in the area. Their lovely spa, where you can hear the sound of the waves during your Balinese massage, might be one of the reasons.

Do you need more information to plan a dive trip to Bali?

Check these additional articles about travelling and scuba diving in Bali:


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USAT Liberty Shipwreck  Diving in Tulamben Bali Indonesia
USAT Liberty Shipwreck Diving in Tulamben Bali Indonesia

Posted by Florine

  1. I am off to Bali next month, I am definitely going to Tulamben to dive. It will be my first wreck dive and I am really looking forward to it. 🙂

    Reply

    1. You’ll love it and that’s a perfect site for a first wreck dive! 🙂

      Reply

      1. Awesome, cheers! Great article 🙂

        Reply

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