14 March, 2009

Tulamben - Where it All Began

The following post is being kindly contributed by Patrick Schwarz.
Patrick Schwarz is a Dive Instructor and owner and founder of the Scuba Seraya Resort at Tulamben on Bali’s north-east coast. He has lived in Tulamben and dived and learned to love the underwater realm around Bali Since 1997patrick@scubaseraya.com http://www.scubaseraya.com/
Tulamben – Where it all began

On an early February morning in 1944, SS Liberty was steaming to the north of the Lombok Strait on a west-north-westerly heading. She was carrying precious cargo of aircraft parts, including engines, rubber, railroad parts and other supplies destined for the Anzus troops, the alliance of Australian, New Zealand and U.S. forces that were doing battle in the region against the Japanese that then occupied most of south-east Asia. Captain and crew were unaware they had been followed thru the night by a Japanese sub- marine. She was hit by two torpedoes in the
early morning hours. They did so just above the waterline of the 120 m (400 ft) long cargo ship,
causing substantial damaged, but no lives were lost, and her sheer mass prevented her from
Built in 1919 in Kearning, New Jersey, Liberty had traveled the sea lanes of the Americas as a cargo ship. What was special about her is that, although of a very early vintage, she was propelled by efficient, sophisticated steam turbines instead of the more common piston and crank engines. Also, she is often misquoted as a Liberty Class ship, which she is not. Liberty was her given name. The Liberty Class ships came much later and were built during World War II in great numbers to deploy US soldiers and war supplies around the globe where America was militarily engaged. Those ships were urgently needed and thus built in a hurry in assembly-line fashion, where pre-fabricated box like portions were welded together shore-side. They were outfitted with classic piston and crank style steam engines.
SS Liberty was commissioned as a vessel to carry military cargo during the Pacific War and transferred across the Pacific to these waters. No changes or reinforcements were made;
only a gun each was raised on her bow and stern. Apart from that, she remained the cargo ship
as which she had been built, albeit under military command.
As she had remained afloat after the torpedo hits, two escorting destroyers, one Dutch, one American, took her under tow in an attempt to move her to Singaraja on Bali’s central north coast. Bali was still Dutch at that time, and Singaraja, its capital, had a marine port. The idea was
to salvage her cargo. But as this was February and the north-west monsoon prevailed, a severe
storm hit just as she was being towed westward along the coast. She started to take on water and inevitably sink. The captain decided to beach her; and she was set aground just to the west of a small hamlet that today is known as Tulamben.
And there she rested, upright. She was stripped of her cargo and propellers and just about everything else that could be humanely removed. Rumors have it that a PT5 fighter aircraft engine was discovered years later in a farming village shed near Lake Batur on Mount Agung.
In the 1960’s, long haul tourism was dominated by cruise ships. Companies such as American President Lines, United States Lines, P&O Orient lines etc. were advertising regular departures to the mystic, exotic, far away Orient. The introduction of civil jet aircraft, especially later models such as the Boeing 707, McDonnell-Douglas DC-8 and the British Aircraft VC-10 doubled the speed, endurance and capacity of long haul air travel and initiated a massive transformation
of and enormous growth in long haul tourism. Against this back-ground, Bali had established itself as a remote, mystical, paradisiacal, fabulously beautiful destination, known as The Island of the Gods.
On March 16, 1963, National Geographic Chief of News Service Windsor P. Booth and photographer Robert F. Sisson arrived on Bali on a field study of the island that was part of President Sukarno’s by then 18 year old Republic of Indonesia. “The day after I arrived”, writes
Wilson in an article that was issued in the National Geographic September 1963 issue, “Bali’s most sacred volcano, Gunung Agung, which islanders call the navel of the earth, exploded in my
face.” The eruption devastated north-eastern Bali’s district of Karangasem, where Tulamben is
located. More than 1,500 lives were lost, 85,000 people lost their homes, and the face of the north-east shore from Culik to Tejakula was changed forever. The dark, black lava rock outcrops
that form the backdrop to most of the Tulamben region’s dive sites were formed and molded then.
Multiple tremors and lava flows that lasted for weeks and even months pushed Liberty over her
side and into the sea, where she came to rest at a 45 degree angle, her port side just below the surface. And thus, one of the world’s most accessible and easily dived shipwrecks came to be. It
took a natural disaster of enormous proportions and unspeakable human suffering to initiate the
birth of what is today known as one of the worlds most famous dive destinations.
Recreational diving was still in its infancy at the time, and Tulamben quite inaccessible from Bali’s main urban centers; it would take several years before the north-east highway would be completed with Australian help. Divers started discovering ‘Liberty, the Wreck’ as she is affectionately known today, in earnest in the early 80’s. They mostly got there after an arduous journey from Denpasar with equipment and all to do two or three dives and journey back on the same day. It did not take long, however, until a young entrepreneurial Balinese, Dewa Nyoman Candra, sensed a niche market and set up a backpacker style hostel (or losmen as they are known in Indonesian). Dive Paradise Tulamben became the original Tulamben operator, and still is (a good one) today. With the growing popularity of the Liberty as a dive destination by itself, divers started exploring areas beyond her, especially to the east and the end of Tulamben bay that led to the discovery of the sites known as “Paradise Reef”, “Coral Garden” and the “Drop Off”, a sheer vertical wall dropping to more than 80m.
Whatever divers fancy – wreck diving, wall diving, macro, schooling fish, diversity and even occasional massive pelagics – Tulamben has it all.
Guests often ask me: “Don’t you ever get tired to dive the same site over and over again”? Since I came to Tulamben in 1996, I must have visited Liberty well over a thousand times – at daybreak, mid-mornings, noon-time, mid-afternoon and during the night – and every time I go
back in I go …Wow! The lady never fails to amaze me! And what is equally amazing is her sheer
resilience. During peak season (July – October), it is possible to find perhaps well over 100 divers on her at any given moment. At times one would see the entire wreck literally draped in a curtain of diver’s exhale bubbles. But come back just after day-break or a rainy day during the off season, and you’ll have the lady all for yourself and she will make you believe it is you who just discovered her.
The large numbers of visitors had as a result that many of the wreck’s inhabitants have become quite accustomed to divers and will let you approach real close. Probably no site in the world can match the Liberty in terms of underwater photographer’s ability to shoot totally up-close frontal fish portraits. The behavior of the intensely colored yellow-white-black striped Oriental Sweetlips that hang out in large numbers on top of the cargo hold gives them away as the first graduate class of The Tulamben Pisces Modeling School. Other permanent residents, such as a giant Barracuda, and an extended family of (24 on last count) Humphead Parrotfish that sleep on the Wreck and wander off every morning to roam Tulamben Bay, the Drop Off and areas beyond have made it into countless captions in dive magazines, websites and blogs viewed the world over. My personal favorite is a giant Grouper I nicknamed Halfface. His head is split down the middle in almost perfect symmetry into a dark brown half and an off white half sporting the classic Potato Grouper’s brown spots. This, combined with somewhat less than perfectly arranged dentistry that exposes needle-like sharp teeth on his lower jaw, give Halfface a grumpy, almost eerie appearance. But he is a shy fellow; he never shows when I visit with other divers in tow. During a solo dive one (very) early morning, however, while holding my breath and with an almost athletic effort in perfect buoyancy, trying not to move and maneuver with minute fin flicks from my heels, I was able to approach him face to face to almost nose-rubbing distance. I was fully aware that the fellow could have rearranged my face right there and then within a split second. But the ability to look him straight in the eyes up close and find that – yes indeed, fish do have a soul – was worth the risk.
Enough said. To really get to know the lady, there is only one way: come and visit her yourself. You too will be amazed!
All pictures in the post are by Marco Gorin whom retains the copy rights.

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