Living in Indonesia and not learning to dive is a bit like investing in the newest widest flattest television set and only watching it with the power turned off. It is quite frankly a little silly and a tragic missed opportunity. I know this because I am guilty. I have been putting off donning the aqualung and fins for almost a decade and had I not recently been invited to sample the many wonders of the deep, my first journey below the sea's surface would undoubtedly have been in the English Channel where I would have been extremely lucky to see my own hand and extremely fortunate to spot anything vaguely colorful or even alive.
Why have I been putting it off so long? Surely the effect of watching Jaws at an early age did not have that much of an effect on me or are the 007 films guilty, with the constant expectation that an enemy agent is going to creep up from behind and cut the essential pipe? Whatever the reason, I'm glad that I have at last made one positive step towards gaining some degree of underwater proficiency. It was only one small step and I am now no more qualified than I was, but a huge hurdle has been passed and now I can't wait to get the essential open water course out of the way and get down to some serious underwater exploration.
My guides into this exciting new world were Bali-based dive company AquaMarine, whose large menu of courses and tours includes a one-day introductory dive. The advantage of this is that it requires no time in the swimming pool or the classroom, but allows the rookie diver two journeys into a dive site so diverse and amazing, it is practically guaranteed he or she will return begging for more.
Tulamben is perhaps Bali's most famous dive destination. Situated on the dramatic north-east coast of the island, it offers clear calm waters, no currents, excellent drop offs and most famously, the wreck of the USAT Liberty. These all lie a short swim from the black volcanic beach. This means no boat charters or other annoyances, just immediate easy access. The Liberty has been underwater here since 1963 when the tremors, which followed the eruption of Mount Agung, shook it off the beach into the sea. A cargo ship from the early 1900s, she had been fitted out with guns at the beginning of the Second World War and then was torpedoed off neighboring Lombok by the Japanese. While being towed to the northern port of Singaraja, she was beached at Tulamben after taking on too much water where she remained until Agung shook her free. No longer intact, her remains now lie between four and 30 meters, encrusted in a multitude of brightly-colored hard and soft coral, teeming with extraordinary diverse marine life. For a first dive this takes some beating.
As Tulamben is about a three-hour drive from the Kuta/Seminyak area but only about 50 minutes from Candidasa, I decided that it would make much more sense to stay there and have a much more relaxed start to what could be a very long day. The Watergarden seemed the obvious choice to prepare me for my upcoming adventures. Beautifully thatched rooms set in an amazingly lush garden, the Watergarden offers private, comfortable and extremely romantic accommodation. More to the point, there is water everywhere. A series of interconnected lily ponds brimming with Koi carp runs throughout the grounds, and this, with the dense tropical vegetation, provides a soothing and relaxed atmosphere and a perfect base to where from explore the many wonders of the east. It is a world away from the teeming streets of Kuta.
Another attraction was the reputation of the hotel's restaurant, their very own Balinese Head Chef Agus creates mouthwatering western, Asian and Vegetarian meals. Having tried the daily specials, which are also seafood-orientated, the restaurant comes highly recommended (the Tom Yum Pla in particular is exquisite).
I was picked up at 8:30 AM sharp and introduced to Wayan, my instructor, Ketut, the very enthusiastic guide and Annabel Thomas, the founder of AquaMarine diving. The sky was heavy with rain as we headed east but Wayan assured me that the sun would be shining in Tulamben. He was right. As we headed east, the landscape noticeably changed, becoming more rocky and arid, and we arrived to clear blue skies and bright sunshine. Mount Agung towered impressively to the west, dominating the landscape behind us as we turned into the Paradise Hotel, our diving base for the day. Annabel Thomas founded AquaMarine a little under two years ago but in that short time has asserted herself as one of the most professional and responsible operators on the island. British and slightly eccentric, she performs a strong almost maternal role in the company, ensuring that the guests get only the best equipment, tuition and service. Her passion for diving and eagerness for others to discover it is the driving force behind AquaMarine and she is keen to help stop the many irresponsible practices (dynamite and cyanide fishing) that threaten its future. She is equally dedicated to showing the world that Bali is not just the gateway to the world's best diving (Bunaken, SE Sulawesi, Komodo National Park) but also a world class dive destination in its own right, something often overlooked in the scramble to get further afield. This dedication and professionalism is evident in her staff. Wayan Suanda, my instructor for the day, has been diving for nine years and this experience showed as he dealt with my almost feverish enquiries.
The day began with an orientation session, which covered the basic skills like equalizing your ears, blowing water out of your mask, hand signals and recovering a lost regulator (the part that you breathe through). There was no question of getting into the water before I was 100% sure how everything functioned and what all the signals meant. We then squeezed into our wet suits and practiced my new skills in shallow water, allowing all mistakes to happen in safe surroundings. I was doing very well until when clearing the mask of water, I forgot to exhale through my nose. The result was a mask full of water . not something you want to happen at any depth. Skills testing over and the adventure began. We descended slowly, with me equalizing my ears every two seconds to make doubly sure nothing went pop, until the amazing scene below converted all my fears into wonder. Wayan guided me down, never once leaving my side and constantly checking to see if all was OK. It was. Once I was comfortable with the breathing, there was nothing to worry about. Although introductory dives are limited to 12 meters depth, we could still explore the wreck, which is positively brimming with fish of all sizes and colors. Clouds of multi-colored Anthias and Chromis, a couple of enormous Potato Groupers lurking in the shadows, brilliantly colored Oriental Sweetlips, a large school of silver Big Eyed Trevally, Snappers, Unicornfish, Parrotfish and Surgeonfish, the amazing Garden Eels and an enormous Cuttlefish all vied for attention. The surroundings were so alien and surreal it was like being in a dream world yet it was only a stone throw from the beach.
The dive off the Wall after lunch was no less spectacular. Wayan again never left my side but I felt much more comfortable in the water and less like a clumsy piece of wood. When I emerged wide-eyed from the water almost a hour later, I felt a mixture of serenity, privilege and almost religious awe. I think Wayan sensed that I was already hooked as he smiled encouragingly in my direction. The Open Water course? I've already started saving.
by Jed Stone
Originally published in Hello Bali
Photographs by David W. Allen