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The Tulumben wreck

by Paul Kay

Reproduced from in focus 51 (Mar. 1994)


Although many wrecks have fascinating histories, there are few that have been beached only to be sunk by the forces of nature many years later. The Liberty ship which now lies in a maximum of 30m, off Tulamben Beach on the north coast of Bali, is somewhat unusual, because this is precisely what happened to it.

Originally torpedoed and badly damaged in 1942, she was taken in tow by two destroyers. It must have become evident that she would not survive long enough to reach port, so she was run aground in a last effort to save her. And there she remained, high and dry, until 1963! Everything of any value or use was removed, leaving a bare hulk, and, but for the upheavals caused by the erupting Gunung Agung nearby, even this would have been cut up for scrap. Instead, the sea claimed this belated war casualty as she was finally engulfed and sunk below the waves.

The Tulamben wreck almost certainly has the distinction of being Indonesia's most dived wreck. Bali's operators offer trips to Tulamben, driving their clients across Bali (an experience itself) and providing guides to show them around. This is how my dive buddy, Pam Kemp, and I dived the wreck. We telephoned a nearby dive operator from out hotel, and were picked up at 7.00 a.m. the next morning. Initially we were driven to the dive centre, where our equipment was checked (as a result of which, we were not asked to show qualification records).

After a two and a half hour journey across Bali, a minibus ride not to be missed (except by those of a nervous disposition), we were on Tulamben's dark pebble beach, kiting up under the palms. Although the sea was calm, there was a swell, which resulted in waves crashing onto the shore with sufficient force to indicate that both entry and exit were likely to be "interesting".

I made the mistake of venturing onto the black lava pebbles without sandals. Have you ever seen a fully-kited diver dance? The pebbles were very, very hot! When we finally made it into the sea, we found ourselves in shallow, warm and reasonably clear water (vis around 15m). A few electric blue fish darted around, breaking up the dullness of the odd, dark sandy seabed. Our guide (leading a couple of novices by their stabs) moved on. The seabed suddenly dropped away revealing wreckage in 20m of water.

This was an archetypal wreck! A wreck envisaged in the imagination! Although somewhat broken up, large areas remained sufficiently intact to enable us to swim in and out of them. The odd ladder remained, twisted pipe work, and the miscellaneous debris which accompanies wrecks everywhere. Coral covered the metal, and together with crinoids, added further strange shapes to those of the distorted vessel.

Multitudes of fish were attracted by the bananas offered them by some of the apparently vast numbers of divers. The bright colours of both fish and diving equipment seemed to compete with each other, before finally merging into a vivid cacophony. Our Japanese guide, Hiromi Matsui, was easily spotted though, with her two students still in tow!

All too soon it was time to head for the beach and brave the swell. We followed the rest of our group, and I realised that the shallow sand we had finned over earlier, actually covered part of the wreck's hull, which yawned open beneath us. Clambering out was, as anticipated, a bumpy affair!

Lunch was idyllic, sandwiches and fresh bananas eaten under swaying palms, with the added bonus of the anticipation of the afternoon dive. Another guide took us down this time. He led us further to the west, down onto another part of the wreckage. Here more twisted metal rose from the seabed stretching upwards to the light. Overhanging, buckled sheets and dark cavernous holes beckoned. We pottered around exploring and just enjoying the spectacle of this encrusted vessel. Our guide patiently waited for us - he had seen this too many times before to find new inspiration, and he was at work after all.

Time was up. As we headed once again for the dark pebble beach, our guide indicated for us to stop at 6m. I showed him my computer reading 99 minutes no-stop, but he was insistent, so we hung around enjoying the extra time without complaint.

As we sat, weary but elated, in our minibus heading through the hot chaotic Balinese night towards our hotel, I reflected that this was a day's diving which I would remember for a long time to come.

Reproduced from in focus 51. Mar. 94 with kind permission of Paul Kay (

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