When going diving in Bali, you absolutely need to go to the northeast shore of Bali. At the end of a curvy road, up and down the hills, between the jungle and the rice fields, lies a black pebble beach the village of Tulamben. Without the periodical wrath of Mount Agung, Tulamben would have stayed a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Due to the volcanic activity, the underwater ecosystem got the perfect ground to develop exceptional marine biodiversity. Not only it is an incredible macro diving site where underwater photographers hunt for the Denise pygmy seahorse or the “donut” doto nudibranch, but Tulamben is not only one of the best dive sites in Bali, it is also one of the best wreck dive sites in the world thanks to a curious history linked again to the volcano: the USAT Liberty.
While being famous for wreck diving, Tulamben is actually perfect for beginner divers too thanks to its shore dive sites. You can find many PADI and SSI dive centres in Tulamben. They are mostly located along Kubu Road. Thanks to its quiet atmosphere and the breath-taking views of Mount Agung, the northeast side of Bali quickly became my favourite spot of the Indonesian island.
The surprising destiny of the USAT Liberty
The USAT Liberty wreck is one of the most accessible wreck dives in the world as the wreck starts only 25m from the beach and only 5m of depth. Its deepest point is at 30m, it is then accessible for most recreational divers, explaining its high popularity.
In 1942, during WWII, the USAT Liberty, an American cargo ship, is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine between Bali and Lombok. Trying to reach the port of Singaraja, the ship cannot be towed further than the beach of Tulamben. For 21 years, it was not a wreck dive site but in 1963, Mount Agung erupted. The eruption created an earthquake that made the ship sliding into the sea, between 5 and 28m of depth.
More than 50 years later, it is now one of the most impressive dive site thanks to the inclination of the wreck, the light in the morning, the amount of life around it and the excellent condition of the wreck making it interesting to dive. The wreck offers several swim-through where you’ll have to practice your best frog-kick with your fins. Many parts of the ship are visible such as ladders or valves. The USAT Liberty was transporting railway parts from Australia to the Philippines, so if you know where to look you can find rail profiles covered in coral.
Diving the Liberty shipwreck
Diving in Tulamben is all about shore diving. Here there is no need to worry about boat logistics. You load your equipment on a jeep, and in 2 minutes you are already on the beach, making you buddy check. With an early start in the day, with 1-hour surface intervals between each dive, you can easily pack 5 dives in a day!
With rarely combined opportunities for wreck diving, muck diving and macro diving, this is the ideal setting for all underwater photography enthusiasts. This is where 4 years ago I started to learn and train with my Canon S95 (update 2020: I now used a Canon G7X). I was lucky enough to have a divemaster who knew the settings of my camera. I started to use the manual setting with my flash, and just by repeating the dives on a couple of days, my progress was huge in such a short time.
This is why it was such a pleasure for me to be back. I could use my improved skills in better conditions for better shots. Unfortunately, once more, after diving at the Liberty, I now feel the urge to buy new gear. I’d like a wide-angle lens to capture the entire wreck and the atmosphere around it and a macro lens for detailed close-up pictures with colourful nudibranchs (update 2020: got them!).
My favourite marine life encounters this year on the Liberty wreck were: a leaf scorpionfish, a ghost pipefish and many nudibranchs I’ve never seen before such as a tiny green and purple flabellina and a white and brown nudibranch that looked like a little bunny! With research, I discovered I had met Flabellina Exoptata and Jorunna Funebris.
Exploring the Liberty wreck at sunrise
Because the USAT Liberty counts within the best diving in Indonesia, it can be a crowded dive site. For a small supplement, you can meet your dive guide at 5.30 am to descend on the wreck at 6.00 am exactly when the sun is rising above Lombok and its volcano, the Mount Rinjani.
3 advantages to doing the early morning dive:
- You will be almost on your own. I did twice this dive, and each time, only at the end of the dive I could finally see another buddy team, not more.
- There are species you only see at sunrise: This is the case for the bump-head parrot fish. They are quite big, about 50cm long, and surprisingly 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 you can have around shipwrecks because of their history.
Diving Tulamben Drop-off
Further away from the wreck, the lava flow from the 1963 eruption created an underwater wall going down to 70 m deep: the Drop-off. If this kind of depth will be reserved only for technical divers, it is also a must dive site for the underwater photographers as its many gorgonians are the home of the pygmy seahorse.
My divemaster and I looked and looked again every gorgonian, but were not lucky. Still, by inspecting gorgonians, hydroids and sea anemones, we were able to spot a tiny gorgonian goby or numerous species of shrimps.
If you can extend your stay in Tulamben, you will also be able to explore Seraya Secrets. It is just a bit outside of Tulamben, on the road to Amed. This dive site is very famous for macro photography opportunities. It seems I have to go back one more time to Tulamben! Don’t we say everything happens in threes?
Which dive centre to choose in Tulamben?
As Tulamben is a shore diving spot, 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 includes a very affordable hotel and a garden to relax in the shade with fresh mango or watermelon juice at the surface interval. Their dive centre is only 2 minutes away from the USAT Liberty wreck. Their Indonesian divemasters are incredibly skilled and they will make sure you see the best of every dive site.
When to go diving in Tulamben?
The best period to go diving in Tulamben is from May to October. Bali can be dived all year round; you will have just lower visibility conditions for the rest of the year.
My first trip to Bali was during the month of January. It is supposed to be the worse part of the monsoon, but it was raining during the 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.
By diving in Tulamben in October, I should say I completely rediscovered the incredible dive site. I was hoping to see the huge school of jackfish swirling above the wreck again, but not this time. Every period has certainly its own advantages.
How to get to Tulamben?
Tulamben is located on the northeast shore of the main island of Bali. It is a 2-hour drive from Ubud or Sanur, and a 15-minute drive from Amed, depending on the traffic of course. I decided to rent a car as it was affordable and it wasn’t a problem for me to drive on the left. With my scuba diving gear in tow, it was indeed the easier option.
If you don’t want to rent a car yourself, don’t hesitate to ask scuba diving centres for a pick-up at your hotel. They usually all have vans since diving in this area between Amed and Tulamben is mostly about shore diving. Some might offer this service for free! If you need a transfer from another part of the island, the fee is reasonable.
Where to stay in Tulamben?
The Matahari Dive Resort is a local family-run hotel and dive centre. It was one of the first one in the area as it opened in 1991. Located right on the black pebble beach of Tulamben, 5-minute driving from the Liberty shipwreck, it is my favourite address in the area, Amed included! Their beautiful spa where you can hear the sound of the waves during your Balinese massage might be one of the reasons.
Do you have more questions about how to plan your first diving trip to Bali? Let me know in the comments or have a look at these additional articles about scuba diving Bali:
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