The USS Liberty wreck dive site has put north Bali, and in particular the small village of Tulamben, firmly on the diving map.
The wreck – correctly named the USAT Liberty – attracts divers from all over the island, some on day trips from the south, others staying in Tulamben itself, all drawn to the site by the promise of a dive on what has to be one of Indonesia's best and most accessible shipwrecks.
History of the USS Liberty wreck
The hull of the ship was laid down in 1918 at Hog Island Emergency Shipyard in Philadelphia, and according to Wikipedia, aptly named the SS Scooba – although that fact should probably be taken with a pinch of salt! On completion after the 11th November Armistice, the vessel was renamed the SS Liberty Glo and went to work as a cargo ship. The SS Liberty Glo's career was then almost cut short before it really had a chance to flourish, when in 1919 is struck a mine off the coast of the Netherlands, just months after leaving the US. Luckily the SS Liberty Glo reached port with no casualties or loss of cargo, despite a large crack in the hull from 'waterline to waterline'.
After America entered WWII, the vessel was commissioned as an armed supply ship by the US Navy, re-designated the USAT Liberty and armed with guns on the foredeck and stern. On 11th January 1942, enroute to the Philippines from Australia, the USAT Liberty was struck by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-166 and suffered extensive damage, but once again, no casualties. The USS Paul Jones and the Dutch HNLMS Van Ghent took the Liberty under tow, away from Lombok and towards Singaraja in Bali, to save her valuable cargo of rubber and railway parts.
However, the USS Liberty began to take on too much water. With Singaraja occupied by enemy forces, the decision was made to beach it at Tulamben in Bali. There the vessel remained, slowly being stripped of its cargo and fittings, until the next significant event in the ship's history – the eruption of Mount Agung in 1963. This volcano eruption killed thousands of people and caused the Liberty to slip down off the beach and beneath the waves, splitting its hull in two in the process. The wreck now lies on its starboard side in just 30-metres of water, having been completely colonised by a riot of hard and soft corals, sponges, ascidians and hydroids. Today, the wreck is home to hundreds of different species of fish and invertebrate life – a peaceful end for a ship with such a tumultuous past.
Diving the USS Liberty wreck
The USS Liberty wreck dive site lies roughly 40-metres from the shore, with its bow pointing approximately due north. At its shallowest point, the wreck is roughly three-metres deep, whilst the deepest sections lie at almost 30-metres, where parts of the super structure and debris can be found scattered on the sandy bottom. Some sections of the vessel's port side and hull have been buried by sand in the shallows but the vertical remains of what was the Liberty's deck and superstructure, as well as parts of the engine room, hold and bow section can all be explored. In fact, whilst the wreck is 'only' 120-metres long, the site can be explored again and again as there is so much to see, particularly in terms of the abundant encrusting life and diversity of fish.
A typical dive on the wreck starts with a Tulamben tradition – having your gear carried down to the beach by one of the ladies of the village collective. From there, it is a simple shore-entry from the pebble beach and then a short swim across black sand, more pebbles and a few small patches of reef before the stern is reached. The rudder is now missing but divers can swim through a gap where it used to be, then along the hull past a series of portholes and towards the remains of the Liberty's upper decks. At around 25-metres lies some fallen superstructure with the stern gun still in place. Heading north, divers swim past a winch with steel cables, a collapsed bulkhead and the remains of the engine room where the shape of boilers and gears can still be made out beneath the coral and corrosion. Further still along the deeper section of the wreck lies more debris scattered on the sandy bottom at around 30-metres, plenty of wreckage with some incredible soft coral and even toilets and showers which can be investigated with care.
Divers then reach the break in the hull where large metal plates lie scattered on the bottom. At the bow section beyond the split, there are several swim-throughs and overhangs beneath the remains of more superstructure and several booms. These are all filled with beautiful soft corals, gorgonian fans and big tubastrea colonies. On the foredeck the shape of the gun can still be made out at around 20-metres, well hidden beneath a barrel sponge and plenty of soft corals.
At the end of the wreck, the anchor chain can be seen lying on the sand at 30-metres. From this point, it is time to turn towards the shore and back around the shallow side of the bow section. Here the hull has almost completely disappeared beneath a heavy covering of hard corals and sponges that hide much of the original surface. Divers then pass back across the break and can enter the hold, a 'room' filled with vertical columns – perfect for shooting natural light silhouettes of divers as they explore the large area. From here divers normally swim back towards the stern across the top of the wreck or cross to the shore side and swim along the hull. Both areas have prolific life with big black coral bushes, soft corals and hard corals and an incredible amount of fish life.
Reef life on the Liberty wreck
For most visitors, it isn't the remains of the wreck itself that is the big attraction. Rather, it is the diversity of life that has been attracted to the site. Biologist estimate that over 400 species of fish make their home on the Liberty, with still more pelagic species as passing visitors – a huge number for such a small site. The combination of deep water close by, currents that provide a steady supply of food and the variety of different habitats around the area, means that everything from the tiniest pygmy seahorse, to giants such as Mola Mola have all been seen on the Liberty. And as well as actual diversity, it is the sheer numbers of fish that makes the site stand out from pretty much any other in Bali.
Above and beyond the profusion of different species on the Liberty, there are a few animals that most divers will remember long after visions of angelfish and cleaner shrimps have faded away. The most obvious is the huge school of bigeye trevallies, or jackfish, that form a tight, swirling mass above the wreck or in the shallows over the sand. The spectacular sight of a dense ball of fish, hanging above the remains of the ship, is probably the iconic photograph from the Liberty wreck. Watching as a big school of bumphead parrotfish moves onto the wreck at dusk is another classic 'Tulamben moment' – along with getting a head full of fine sand as the fish pass over head, steadily releasing the remains of their coral diet as they go. Finally, a giant barracuda that lives on the wreck has now become justifiably famous. This huge fish has become so used to divers that it can be approached to within inches, giving a diver an amazing opportunity to appreciate just how large the teeth of a big barracuda really are.
General reef life is prolific on the Liberty. There are large numbers of surgeonfish, anthias and other damsels, parrotfish, butterflyfish and angelfish. Groupers are everywhere, including one large specimen that has a bizarre, half-black head. There are gobies and blennies, moray eels and garden eels, hawkfish, mullet, rabbitfish, bannerfish, moorish idols, trumpetfish and goatfish. Triggerfish can be seen nesting in the sand whilst scorpionfish and leaf scorpionfish lie camouflaged amongst the corals. There are different types of lionfish, sweetlips and anemonefish, big snappers and emperors, batfish, schools of sergeant majors, filefish, pufferfish and boxfish. Some interesting critters can be found – ghost pipefish, pygmy seahorses and frogfish make regular appearances and there are octopus and cuttlefish hidden away in holes and in the sand.
Big animals also make appearances with Napoleon wrasse often being spotted, the occasional shark and eagle ray seen on the sand below the wreck and larger pelagics, such as Spanish mackerel, that come onto the wreck to charge through the schools of smaller fish as they hunt.
Once divers have had their fill of the fish life, they can then start to appreciate the fact that the species diversity continues with invertebrates such as nudibranchs and crustaceans. Pretty much anywhere on the wreck is worth searching for smaller macro subjects, but it is at night that a hunt for strange crustaceans really pays off. A night dive on the Liberty is a completely different experience from a day dive, and possibly ranks as one of the best night dives in Indonesia! The hard corals that cover the wreck in many areas extend their polyps to feed in the currents, giving the wreck a decidedly 'bushy' appearance.
During the day, under the natural sunlight that penetrates down to the wreck, the colours of these corals are a muted green, blue and brown but with a torch at night, the surface of the Liberty is transformed into a profusion of day-glo red, gold and yellow. Plenty of crinoids and basket stars also emerge, adding to the mass of life that covers the wreck. Black coral bushes sparkle with the eye-shine of hundreds of transparent shrimps and there are small crabs and squat lobsters seemingly everywhere – the wreck literally starts to crawl with life! The odd lantern fish will sometimes put on a light show around the hold or on the deeper parts of the wreck – an unusual sight rarely seen by divers as these fish are normally found in deeper water. And, the bioluminescence on the wreck can also be incredible. Simply shining your torch across an area of encrusting life can be enough to trigger a response of tiny flashes of light, visible for a few seconds as you turn your torch away.
Other useful information about diving the Liberty wreck
The Tulamben wreck is an incredible dive site and as such, attracts a lot of divers. It is best dived by staying in or around Tulamben itself and getting to the wreck early in the morning, when the visibility is normally better and day-trippers from the south of Bali have yet to arrive. By around 10am, the Liberty is busy and it is best to dive one of the other sites in the area, before heading back for a late-afternoon or night dive once the site quietens down once again. Visibility on the USAT Liberty is quite variable. Between 15 and 20-metres is probably an accurate average and it rarely gets beyond 25-metres due to the large amount of plankton in the water. The wreck site is quite sheltered and so any currents here are generally quite mild, making it easy for beginners as well as experienced divers.
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