Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Liberty (Mar. 13/09 - Amed, Bali, Indonesia)

In World War II, a Japanese submarine torpedoed a US cargo ship "Liberty" 15km southwest of Lombok, where it was towed to shore on Bali by the US Navy to salvage the cargo of raw rubber and railway supplies. It stayed there, near Tulambed on Bali's northeast coast, until earth tremors during the massive 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung sent it sliding into the sea, fracturing it in several places. Today it sits in shallow water just 40 metres from shore, making for easy access by divers and snorkellers. Friends from home have dived it before and gave rave reviews, so we had high expectations since it was our destination for the day.

While waiting for the dive van to pick us up this morning, we walked
along the beach and watched the local fishermen bringing in their morning catch of makerel, coasting their outrigger boats ashore and pulling them up by hand onto the beach. Kids and dogs milled around to see what the men brought in, and a tiny old lady, hunched over with age, helped herself to a dozen fish and then hobbled back up to her house. We drove about 20 minutes west along Bali's north coast to Tulamben, taking in perfect views of Gunung Agung en route, as this was the first time since we arrived on Bali that it wasn't enveloped in cloud. The Liberty sunk so close to shore that it is done as a shore dive, so we geared up on the rocky beach with views out to Lombok and its imposing 3700m Gunung Rinjani volcano. The water was flat and crystal clear, and it was almost too easy just to walk into the water, put on fins, and have the wreck within sight the moment you go under. The ship is about 120m in length and lies on her side, with the deepest sections not even at 100 feet. With decades of time for marine life to inhabit the wreck, it was completely covered in corals and teeming with fish of all varieties and sizes, from hovering barracuda and schooling jacks to tiny cleaner fish and gobies. Soft corals and sea fans waved in the current, virtually hiding the fact that it was a ship at all. Tunicates, feather stars, black and green 'chromodoris' nudibranchs, tiny yellow crabs, giant clams, huge grouper, and even a tiny pygmy seahorse clinging to a sea fan near the base of the wreck. We cruised the length of the deck, trying to decifer the ship's structure, then zigzagged along the hull and through the mangled holds, emerging at the ship's guns and towering superstructure that came to within a few feet of the surface. Off the bow, a huge school of several thousand jacks swirled in a slow motion tornado, sparkling in the sun and causing us to completely forget where we were for a moment - it was so beautiful! Even on the short swim back to shore, we saw a peacock mantis shrimp, a field of the biggest garden eels we had ever seen, a juvenile harlequin sweetlips, and a gobie with its resident shrimp poking out of their hole in the sand. It was a phenomenal dive, definitely worthy of a couple more to take in all the life that call the Liberty home.

Our second dive on the Liberty was much the same as our first - beautiful and relaxing. The school of jacks was swirling in the shallows still, accompanied by a couple gigantic trevally. We swam in and out of the structure, checking out more nudibranchs, a scorpionfish, anemonefish, and dipping down to get another look at the pygmy seahorse. Having never seen one before, I was amazed how tiny they are. I held up my pinky finger to compare, and it was much less than half its width! And so camoflauged - pink with white bumps to perfectly match the pink gorgonian he was clinging to. Some areas on the wreck were so thick with fish that it was borderline claustrophobic! Big barrel sponges sprouted from the towers and soft corals of all different textures masked the metal ship hidden underneath. We found a few more gorgeous nudibranchs near the bow in shallow water, where there were views out into the deep blue through the exposed portholes. On our way back to the beach after an hour underwater, I found a bizarre big crab and a peacock mantis shrimp scurrying over the rocks. This was definitely one of those sites that you never want to surface from - highly recommended to anyone who makes a visit to Bali!

A short distance down the beach east of the Liberty is the Tulamben Drop-off, where the rocky bottom falls away to a beautiful wall on the edge of three lava flows, where we did our third dive. To the untrained eye, a plain rocky/sandy bottom often appears dead and boring, but if you look closely and swim slowly, all kinds of critters become visible. Hundreds of tiny black gobies hovered above their holes in the sand, turning and diving in unison at any sign of danger. A group of a dozen baby triggerfish swam in a cluster near their mother, and several colourful nudibranchs slithered along the bottom. Along the wall, we cruised slowly and found gorgonians crawling with tiny transparent shrimp, more candy-coloured nudibranchs, a big cuttlefish, giant clams, a moray eel, huge feather stars, and a couple blue-spotted stingrays. It's fun to watch symbiosis at work at cleaning stations, where fish of all types, from wrasses and butterflyfish to big guys like grouper and trumpetfish, hover in an area where little cleaner wrasses go to work nibbling parasites off them. Sometimes they sit there with mouths and gills open, and everybody leaves happy - clean or full of dinner. By the time we made it back to the rocky shallows, the afternoon sun was shining through the water onto a passing school of grunts, making for a nice end to another lovely dive and a perfect day beneath the waves.

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