Diving Indonesia: Bali – The Insiders Guide to the USAT Liberty Wreck at Tulamben

The divers car park at the Liberty wreck at Tulamben in Bali

Divers in the car park for the Liberty wreck at Tulamben in Bali

The first ones arrive just after eight and on a busy day, within the next hour the car park will be filled with a selection of cars, mini-buses plus the odd large coach and a quick walk around will expose you to a veritable United Nations of international accents.

They used to come mainly from the east, up the coast road and over the nearby mountains into the town’s main street – in fact, the only street…

But now they are also being bused in from the west and the new resorts that have been built in nearby villages such as Kubu where the real estate is cheaper.

This is Tulamben, the small town on the north-east coast of Bali, and “they” are the scuba diving tourists who come to experience the island’s most famous wreck, and arguably one of the best known wrecks in the world, the USAT Liberty.

The Liberty has long been a dive that most divers aspire to have in their logbooks, but in recent years the wreck has graduated on to the backpacker “must do” list of experiences that have to be completed before reaching 25…

The beach by the Liberty wreck in Tulamben in Bali - divers kitting up

Divers kitting up to dive the Liberty wreck at Tulamben

I vividly remember my first dive on the wreck back in 1999 and how impressed I was by the rich marine life and beautiful soft corals it supported, but I also recall being taken aback by the number of divers on the wreck.

That was some 13 years ago when there was no car park, only a hand-full of dive resorts in operation and it felt really crowded sharing the overall experience with 20-30 other divers.

These days it is not uncommon to have more than 100 divers on the wreck during the busiest hours of the day and in the peak seasons those numbers can easily exceed 150!

So is the Liberty Wreck still worth diving – or is it being killed by its popularity and become a mere shadow of its former pristine glory?

Diving Indonesia: Bali – The Insider’s Guide to the Liberty Wreck

If you had asked me last year “have you dived the Liberty?” I would have waxed lyrically about the various experiences I have had on the wreck and how I have learned to dive it early in the morning before everybody arrives. Plus I would have told you about the various hot-spots you should visit on the wreck to see a particular type of fish or coral.

But then I realized that although I had indeed dived it dozens of times over the years I could still manage to get lost on it and did not possess the intimate knowledge of its topography that I needed to write a definitive article on this famous wreck.

Tulamben Wreck Divers owner Tony Medlow

Tony Medcraft of Tulamben Wreck Divers

So I approached Tony Medcraft of Tulamben Wreck Divers to see if he would help me write an “insider’s guide to the Liberty Wreck” and to my delight, my email was answered within minutes, and the next week I was on my way back up to Tulamben.

Tony and his wife Dot are very well known in the Australian dive industry as the people who developed the Exmouth Dive Center and scuba diving on Ningaloo Reef, in Western Australia, and also helped set-up the whale shark Code of Conduct that has been a key part of the successful interaction with whale sharks there.

Tony and Dot have been diving the Liberty wreck since the early 1980’s and when they decided to sell their business in Exmouth, a move to Tulamben became the logical next step, and they set up Tulamben Wreck Divers in 2001 in partnership with former dive guide turned local entrepreneur Wayan Ambek.

Tony’s very clear advice to me was that if I really wanted to experience the best the wreck has to offer I should start very early and then dive different sections during the day with specific objectives in mind.

His view is that the Liberty is basically a microcosm of the best diving Bali has to offer, but it is more than just a dive site and the wreck is a living thing nourished and sustained by the rich waters than run down the north-east coast of the island into the mighty Lombok Strait.

Those waters flush through Tulamben Bay and are the key to the sheer resilience of the wreck and its ability to regenerate.

The rich marine population of the Liberty has also learned to adjust to the daily influx of visitors, so if you arrive during peak hours with a fish-eye lens to capture the bigger residents you are likely to be disappointed. But if you adjust your timing and expectations around the rush hour(s) it’s possible to have some incredibly memorable dives.

Diving Indonesia: Bali – Early Morning on the Liberty Wreck

Early morning on the Liberty wreck used to mean being in the water around 07.30 – but the truth is that you really should be leaving the wreck at that time to enjoy a hot breakfast and reflect on what you have just seen.

06.00 is the witching hour if you want to see the wreck and some its inhabitants at their best and I have created a dedicated page to diving the Liberty early in the morning.

Diving Indonesia: Bali – Mid-Morning and Early Afternoon on the Liberty Wreck

Even on a quiet day there will still be numerous divers on the wreck from about 08.30, so if you are diving anytime after that through to early afternoon it’s time to change pace and do a bit of critter spotting so that you can ignore all the other people on the wreck.

But there’s a trick… you will be best served hiring a good guide so that you can make the most of your time underwater.

Here is the link to a page dedicated to diving the Liberty from mid-morning through to early afternoon.

Diving Indonesia: Bali – Late Afternoon on the Liberty Wreck

This is a good time on the wreck as calm is returning again… It’s not always perfect as the visitors have usually stirred up the visibility and scared off most of the inhabitants, but just as the wreck seems to have worked out how to deal with the daily influx, so have the locals!

Here is the link to a page dedicated to diving the Liberty in the late afternoon.

Diving Indonesia: Bali – After Dark on the Liberty Wreck…

A night dive on the Liberty is a special thing, but one that needs to be considered carefully because it’s easy to get lost and a little bit disorientated during the day, so after dark you can almost guarantee you will.

The Tulamben dive guides know the wreck better than the backs of their hands, and so would you if you were diving it every day of the week. They also know the best place to find stuff once darkness has fallen on the Liberty.

So do yourself a favor and use a guide to dive the wreck at night and experience it at its eerie best!

Diving Indonesia: Bali – Random Encounters on the Liberty Wreck

As the old saying goes – “you should have been here last week” and you will be sure to hear that regularly in Tulamben, because the wreck acts as a beacon to the true pelagics of the Indo-Pacific.

Mola Mola’s are spotted regularly around the Liberty in the deep waters around the mid-section, particularly around August & September when they become quite common.

Whale shark’s also put in periodic appearances and on my last dive of this trip, while I was down at the bow in the early morning light trying to get that front cover shot, a 4m whale shark was entertaining a group of Japanese divers at the stern.

We emerged around the same time and, while my Japanese is limited to “thank you” and “one more beer please”, I could tell they were very excited about something and eager to share their images.

That’s the thing about the Liberty Wreck, you just never know what is around the corner and it seems to possess an almost infinite capability to surprise and enthrall you.

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