While researching the Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok, Jeroen van Marle took some time out to explore an underwater shipwreck in east Bali.
We waded into the warm sea from the black sand beach, slipped on our flippers, did a last safety check and then dived down. Our dive master Wayan had only led our small group of divers along the gently sloping seabed for a minute or two when the massive hull of the Liberty shipwreck came in sight, taking my breath away. The 125-metre long wreck is still reasonably intact, with towering metal beams reaching from the huge cargo bay towards the glistening surface, and colourful fish swarming all over and around it.
In the shallow waters just off the beach of Tulamben village, near Amed in east Bali, the Liberty wreck is one of Asia's best dive spots. The US Army cargo ship was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942, then towed towards Singaraja harbour in northwest Bali but sank near Tulamben and was beached in order to save the cargo. Liberty lay there until the violent 1963 eruption of Bali's Gunung Agung volcano caused her to slide back into the sea, where it now hosts an incredible variety of sea life.
Swimming through the holes in the wreck, we spotted hundreds of resident reef fish, and plenty of larger fish from deeper down visiting for a snack. With some luck you see herds of huge humphead parrotfish grazing on the Liberty's coral in the early morning, but there are reef sharks, turtles, rays and many other species too.
"There are so many fish that sometimes you need to push them aside to see the wreck," explained John Huxley, enthusiastically pawing imaginary fish away with his hands. Huxley is the Canadian manager of Eco Dive, the first dive centre to open in Amed in 1997. “By now, generations of fish have grown up with divers around, so they're quite fearless and allow you to get very close. The Liberty is great for snorkellers too, as the upper parts lie just below the surface.”
East Bali's other main centre for snorkelling and diving is Padang Bai, a busy village that's also the main port for car ferries and fast boats to neighbouring Lombok island. Cedric Saveuse of the French/British-run Geko Dive says that Padang Bai is the perfect place for underwater adventures. “The diving and snorkelling is excellent here as we can reach most sites in under ten minutes, the coral is in good condition and there's a surprising amount of sea life, including tiny pygmy seahorses, whitetip reef sharks, turtles and great macro diving, focusing on small creatures. East Bali is great for offering a lot of surprises on land too.”
Padang Bai's village beach is crowded with fishing and tourist boats, but out along the headlands and in the deeper ferry channel there's excellent diving. A short walk away across the headland, the tiny Blue Lagoon beach has colourful coral and large numbers of fish in the shallows, so that children too can safely snorkel here.
The region is little visited when compared to the bustling resort towns around Kuta near the airport in the south of the island, but it's gaining recognition as a place to take it easy, see living traditions and take in the beautiful landscapes. The diving scene here is still very low-key, relaxed and affordable, certainly when compared to other Asian dive areas.
A number of factors makes diving around Amed and Padang Bai especially good. The black volcanic sand absorbs the light and makes colours stand out for underwater photography enthusiasts. The deep trench between Bali and Lombok supplies the coast with a constant current of cooler, nutrient-rich water, benefiting corals and plankton-eating sea life, and flushing out pollution and river sediment. East Bali also has a very good variety of shallow reefs and steep dropoffs, most of them with only moderate currents, making the area suitable for divers of all levels.
East Bali is also best positioned for day trips to Nusa Penida island, where Manta Point and other dive sites rank as the best in the world, albeit only for very experienced divers as the weather and currents can be treacherous. Besides manta rays, large sharks and huge mola-mola sunfish, the heaviest bony fish in the world, can be seen here.
After having dived the Liberty wreck, Wayan took us a few hundred metres east along the coast to explore the Tulamben Wall dive site. There was nobody else on the beach as we waded in, and our slow drift dive in clear visibility along the vertical cliff revealed yet more stunning underwater wildlife. As we swam back to shallow waters, we passed dozens of spotted garden eels, sticking their heads out of their sandy burrows and swaying in the current. I waved back to the eels, determined to return for underwater adventures.