The USS Liberty: Bali’s sunken treasure

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Tulamben, a small village in Karangasem Regency located in the northeast of Bali, is one striking tourism site that continue to attract foreign and domestic visitors. Geographically very close to Mount Agung, Tulamben overlooks the Lombok strait which is very rich in marine life. Diving and snorkelling are two popular activities that cannot be separated from this place. Tulamben has four remarkable diving spots:  Suci’s Place, Tulamben Wall, Golden Coral, and the USS Liberty Shipwreck. These four became the underwater heaven of Tulamben, but the most interesting point to explore is the wreck of the alleged American Warship on Tulamben Beach, the USS Liberty. Located about 25 meters from the coast, the USS Liberty has become an icon of Tulamben. The shipwreck forms a beautiful coral reef colony and is now home to thousands of fish and other marine biota.

Credit Marcel Ekkel

Historically, the USS Liberty was launched on June 19th, 1918, as a United States warship cargo type. The task of USS Liberty with a displacement of 13,130 tons served the needs of the United States military in World War II. While in the waters of Bali en route from Australia to the Philippines, on January 11th, 1942, with 436 tons of cargo, the ship was hit by a Japanese submarine’s (J-166) torpedo causing the hull to leak. Some of the ship’s crews were rescued by the Dutch destroyer, HNLMS Van Ghent. There was an attempt to tow the USS Liberty to Singaraja, the Balinese capital at the time as well as a port town in northern Bali, in order to get her repaired. However, the USS Liberty was sinking rapidly and had to be beached halfway through, in the small fishing village of Tulamben. The cargo was emptied and left to be dismantled by the local population. For the next 20 years, she was left there, being slowly eaten away by the inhabitants as the raw material it was made of was quite precious to build houses and other things. Ultimately the USS Liberty sank into the seabed, which according to records was located in the Lombok Strait. But due to strong ocean currents, the wreck was pushed two miles from where it sank originally, towards the north coast of the island of Bali. The sinking position of the ship was only at a depth of 8 meters, but in 1963, the nearby volcano, Mount Agung, erupted. The lava from the volcanic eruption caused by the earthquakes pushed the ship into the sea where it sank onto its side. It now lies on the black sandy bottom of the Tanjung Muntik bay of Tulamben, lying on its right flank. The bridge finds itself vertically seaside. The bow to the West, the stern to the East where divers can still very well identify the huge helm. One of the two cannons is still visible under its turret to the front of the ship at a depth of 28 meters. The ship is about 130 meters long with the shallowest part at about 5 meters and the deepest on the other side of the wreck at about 30 meters deep. Some researchers said that if in the future Mount Agung erupt once again, there is a possibility that the wreck will shift its position to a deeper sea making it more difficult for divers to reach.

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The USS Liberty wreckage was forgotten until the early 1980’s, but today, it has become the world-renowned amongst divers. During almost 20 years, it was simply stranded on the beach and rusted, the paint freeing itself little by little from the steel plates. The marine paint having been made to avoid the formation of life, coral and algae, many wrecks where the paint has remained relatively intact in the world have not been able to be colonised by as much coral, which makes the Liberty wreck unique. A multicoloured Gorgonians couple at a depth of 12 and 14 meters, on the front section of the ship will be easily found. The marine life is incredible and everywhere on the wreck, as divers will see Humphead Parrot fish, schools of Trevally, Leaf Scorpion fish, Pygmy Seahorse, giant Barracuda, Frogfish, Groupers, Jack fish, Angel fish, Black Tip and White Tip sharks. If lucky, divers may even encounter a Whale Shark, an Eagle ray or even a Mola Mola. Night dives are also unforgettable. Each night the numerous Parrot fish arrives on the wreck and sleep there together as one big family. The wreck has been completely colonised by coral during the 50 years that it has spent in the Tulamben waters.

Tulamben sea is generally calm, usually very clear and most of the time there is no current at all which provides easier and more relaxing snorkelling and diving sessions. Depending on visitors diving capacities and the type of things they want to see, the USS Liberty wreck can be explored in different ways. This dive site is perfect for muck dives aficionados. Deep divers and shallow divers alike can enjoy the USS Liberty shipwreck, considering its unique disposition. Since its shallower point starts at 7 meters, any diver can take a shot at exploring the remains.

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Exploring the inside of the shipwreck is quite accessible. The USS Liberty is one of the most easily dived wrecks in the world, but divers need to stay alert as the wreckage has been in the sea for decades. For a long time, the strong current in Tulamben waters has not been too friendly to the sunken ship: all the hulls are rusty, and many parts of the ship are becoming increasingly fragile. A community group of residents −facilitated by the Nusantara Community Lens, Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), Conservation International (CI) Indonesia and the Reef Check Indonesia Foundation− have taken some documentations of the wreckage to raise awareness between divers which hopefully in the end will help preserve the shipwreck. Some of these activists are local dive guides and tourism workers whose main support is this underwater treasure. They photographed some broken part of the ship, they even found one corner of the ship buried in the sand, also a number of broken corals. In recent years, conservation activists have begun to worry about the future of this famous dive spot. Dive in Tulamben is recommended for both macro lovers and ambiance photographers, as the colourful marine life stands out against the volcanic black sand seabed. The rich biodiversity of the sea floor attracts underwater photographers, naturalists, and divers passionate about marine biology. In the high season, dozens of divers can be at this site at the same time, making the ship at risk of being destroyed if divers are not careful.

According to the CI Indonesia report, the coastal areas and small islands of Karangasem Regency were identified as having high conservation value in the Bali Marine Rapid Assessment Program (MRAP) in 2011. Around 100 divers descend on Tulamben waters every day. Data from the Karangasem Culture and Tourism Office in 2013-2014 shows that around 70 thousand tourists visit this location every year. In a discussion held by CI, a number of parties from the Cultural Heritage Preservation Center said that regulations on the management of this underwater tourism area were needed, and it must be clear, such as the certainty of conservation zoning and the preservation of this shipwreck site. Technically, signs could be installed as signs for divers. Although it is certain, but no one can predict with confidence when the ship will run out. To anticipate this, there needs to be an alternative attraction. The local dive guides are already planning to form a kind of diving guide association and make an agreement to protect this precious submerged gem as well as being their sources of livelihood.

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