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Diving Tulamben: Life Takes Over

INDONESIA | Thursday, 15 November 2007 | Views [2359]

Ketut & his sons

Ketut & his sons

Everyone comes to Tulamben on Bali's north coast to dive the wreck of the U.S.A.T Liberty, a US Navy cargo ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in January 1942.  Apparently there were no casualties, but the ship was a wreck so it was towed to the coast at Tulamben where they intended to salvage the cargo.  However, the Japanese occupation of Indonesia put a halt to these plans, and the massive ship sat on the beach until 1963 when the eruption of Agung broke it in two and pushed it off the shore into the depths.

I’ve never gone diving on a wreck, and was excited at the prospect of seeing a cargo ship, 110 meters long, on the bottom of the sea.  I expected to see the form of a ship on the bottom of the sea, maybe broken up a bit, but the form of a ship nonetheless.  Instead, I saw the most complex coral reef I’ve ever seen in my life, with a few ship-like features.  We first came upon the rudder, a massive 3 or 4 storey high thing.  Next was the anchor, also gargantuan.  Then we came to a wall, not unlike a drop-off you see in the coral reef, which must have been the stern of the ship.  

As we swam around, I discovered that it was the most extraordinary coral reef I’ve ever seen.  I call it a coral reef because that is exactly what it was.  Coral formations have completely taken over the wreck, with not a bit of metal visible.  But the larger structure is totally unique – huge drop offs and pieces of coral encrusted wreckage piled up every which way.  It’s absolutely extraordinary. In fact, it was more beautiful than any coral reef I’ve ever seen.  And this is the most amazing thing: it is a man-made structure, a feat of human engineering and the human capacity to manipulate the natural environment.  Even more so, it is a structure made specifically to aid in a massive world war campaign, the giant representative of one of the most powerful naval forces in the world, of a nascent super-power. 

And now, Life has taken over.  The once-powerful naval ship now brought to its knees in the depths of the Bali Sea is teeming with life, with the most extraordinarily beautiful, complex, and delicate forms of life imaginable.  I love the poetry of it, and reveled in this thought as I floated through and around this marvelous thing.  From the human will to shape and control nature, to a war effort, to a place where life takes over in the most beautiful way, filled with myriad elegant creatures.  And that’s not to mention a tourist attraction that supports an entire Balinese town and gives visitors from around the world good stories to tell their friends.

I was struck by the layers of life that have taken up residence on the Liberty.  Every corner of the reef is like a mini-ecosystem in its own; here tiny orange fish feed on creamy-colored coral; there angel fish with long whiskers nibble at something else.  There were hard corals of all varieties: elk horn and barrel corals, brilliant blue and yellow corals.  Soft corals of all sorts of colors and shapes swayed like delicate feathers in the current.  I was captivated by tiny translucent purple cup-like corals that looked as delicate as egg shells.  Fish were drawn to the ship like it was their own private McDonalds.  We saw an enormous barracuda – the largest I’ve ever seen – float by, his teeth jagged and sharp.  A large grouper skirted the wreck.  And a million gazillion other gorgeously colorful fish which I cannot begin to describe until I figure out how to take a notebook underwater with me. 

For me, diving is the way I imagine an acid trip must be: you see something that blows your mind, you get totally absorbed in it, then something else grabs your attention, and you get totally absorbed in the new thing, forgetting all about the first mind-blowing scenario, and on and on like this.  Diving is like this for me, so much that I wish I had a notebook with me to take notes on what I’m seeing because the minute I see something, or move to a new place, I completely forget what I have just seen.  I think the nitrogen bubbles must do something to my memory because I become so absorbed, so forgetful.  In fact, I lose complete track of space and time as well.  If not for Ketut, I’d have ended up staying down all day, and perhaps drifting miles away.  Everything is so immediate underwater, and one of the few ways I feel myself living totally, fully, and completely in the present moment. 

Tags: bali, diving, tulamben, wrecks

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