Tulamben and the USAT Liberty

Tulamben is a small town in Bali built around a “major” highway, and the town extends about one kilometer. The air is quiet and still and yet there is still an excitement in the town for scuba diving. People come here from all over, and especially Australia, to dive. While in Tulamben, I learned to dive with an Australian family, I had breakfast every day with a nice couple from Sweden, and I bumped into the same German group of girls a couple times on the town’s only street. Although only there for five days, maybe because of the smallness of the town and maybe because of the friendliness of the people, I truly felt at home. I met a local named Gada from a restaurant called Sandya that had free wifi, so I usually ended my days here, whether for dinner, dessert, or just a drink. I made friends with one of the dive masters, Ketut, from Tulamben Wreck Diving and we spent an afternoon together touring around the local area on his motorbike.

big fish

Side Note: Birth order in Bali determines one’s first name. Wayan is the name of the firstborn child, Made for the second, Nyomar for the third, Ketut for the fourth, and then start back at Wayan or at least a derivative of Wayan. This, predictably, can make things a bit complicated because it means that more than 1 out of 4 Balinese will be named Wayan. The first person I met at Tulamben Wreck Divers was Big Made (pronounced “Ma-day”), then there was Boss Wayan, Dive Instructor Wayan, Dive Master Made, Ubud hotel Staffer Made, Ubud Hotel Manager Wayan, and so on. Adding adjectives before and after their names becomes critical.

a-ok diving
Swimming with the fishes

Back to the town of Tulamben, it became a Scuba divers destination because of the sunken ship, the USAT Liberty. Although USAT might sound like some standardized admissions test or aptitude test, it actually stands for United States Army Transport. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II in 1942. Later, in 1963, a volcanic eruption moved the ship off the beach and into the water where it is now a popular dive site. Although I didn’t find any treasure, diving in and around the wreckage is awe-inspiring as coral and sea life has attached itself to almost every available surface. Big fish, small fish, red fish, blue fish, and more. I’d be more specific with the fish names and less like Dr. Seuss, but I honestly don’t know which fish is which.

Under The Sea

me underwater
Me and my scuba gear off the coast of Tulamben, Bali

Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter. Take it from me. Up on the shore they work all day. Out in the sun they slave away. While we devotin’ full time to floatin’ under the sea. Down here all the fish is happy, as off through the waves they roll. We got no troubles, life is the bubbles under the sea. Since life is sweet here, we got the beat here, naturally. We got the spirit. You got to hear it under the sea. The newt play the flute, the carp play the harp, the paice play the bass, and they soundin’ sharp. The bass play the brass, the chub play the tub, the fluke is the duke of soul. The ray he can play, the lings on the strings, the trout rockin’ out. The blackfish she sings the smelt and the sprat, they know where it’s at an’ oh that blowfish blow. Each little snail here know how to wail here. That’s why it’s hotter under the water. Ya we in luck here down in the muck here under the sea!

Sebastian’s version is quite accurate, but how would I describe being under the sea? It would be easier to stay in the abstract and describe it as unreal, as a sense of freedom, and as both calming and exhilarating. When the most prevalent sound is that coming from my own breath, my visibility only reaches about 15m, and I am completely weightless, it is both an empowering and frightening experience.

underwater fish
We found Nemo!

It is my first day diving. At 9am, I’m greeted by my dive instructor, Wayan, whose streaks of long gray hair immediately make me feel more confident. I am soon fitted with gear, which is no small task with Scuba after accounting for the suit, the booties, belt, flippers, mask, snorkel, buoyancy control device (BCD), regulator, pressure gauge, and a tank of air. Although SCUBA is short for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, I am not sure what part of this list accounts for said apparatus or if its the whole outfit. The humidity and warmth of the Balinese air makes this fitting a bit sweaty, which only heightens the anticipation of submerging into water. We learn what attaches where, twists how, and is needed when, and then we climb into the pool relieving us of the weight of the “apparatus.” After some scuba practice, we file out of the pool careful not to fall backwards as we remember what’s on our backs, we then have a quick snack, and its off to the sea.

We grab our fins and masks, and let people half our size and twice our age carry the tank and BCD’s down. Some of the women balance the tanks on their heads, sometimes with no hands and then walk down a less than even path. Quite humbling. After waddling out over small rocks into the water, we check all the equipment one more time, and start to deflate our BCD’s. Initially, I start to hyperventilate because it is unnatural to breathe underwater, but I force myself to take long breaths and eventually calm down. I look around, realize I am in fact breathing fine, and begin to follow the instructor around a ship wreck of a sunken US ship, the USAT Liberty. The coral formations on almost every available ship surface and the life swimming through it completely distract me from the fact that I’m 15m underwater and breathing out of a tank. Fish come up to my mask and almost seem to run into me.  That said, I did learn that objects may appear closer than they are because of light refraction through the water, the plastic, and then the air inside the mask.

USAT Liberty
Everything is OK in front of the USAT Liberty

Later in the dive, the guide makes his hand flat and places it perpendicularly in the middle of his forward. During most of our training, Wayan performs an action and we repeat, but I am unsure what I am supposed to do at this point. He repeats the forehead chop motion and then points off into the distance. At the end of a line created by extending his pointing finger, I see a shark. Again, this is frightening and calming all at once. No one including the shark is in any rush; however, we do turn around at this point and head back in the opposite direction. The forehead chop is not a chop, and instead it is a shark fin. Good to know.

Other than for running out of air, I feel I could stay underwater indefinitely, and when this dive concludes, I am excited and ready for the next one after lunch.