I decided to go diving in Tulamben, Bali, for a lot of reasons, but the main one was to get away from Jen.
Just kidding! (Mostly.)
One of the things about full-time travel as a couple is that, well, it pretty much means being with the other person full-time. People always ask us if we get sick of each other, and we don’t (I mean, not really…), but living this way has definitely helped us see how important it is to have time apart, too.
So every few months, we make a point to split up for a bit and embark on solo adventures, which give us a chance to pursue our own interests and grow as individuals. (Don’t underestimate the transformative power of solo travel, especially if the idea makes you uncomfortable.)
Traveling separately also gives us interesting things to share with each other once we reunite. That might not sound like a big deal, but believe me, when you spend all day every day with the same person, it’s incredibly novel to have something to share that the other person doesn’t already know about!
Separate Travels in Bali
We planned our first trip to Bali around Jen’s position volunteering at the Bali Spirit Festival, which kept her busy for the week. I figured that would be a good time to do some solo travel, and also the perfect chance to push forward with my diving education and get my PADI Advanced Open Water certification.
So while Jen spent her days checking wristbands and attending yoga workshops, I headed to the coast. Bali has tons of great places to get underwater, but I eventually settled on going diving in Tulamben on the northeast side of the island.
Relative to other dive towns around Bali, it’s budget-friendly and uncrowded (and after being in busy Ubud, I was ready for someplace a little calmer). Most importantly, the USAT Liberty – the only Bali shipwreck accessible to divers – is just off the coast. After reading up on a bunch of different dive shops, I signed up for a two-day course with Tulamben Wreck Divers.
The Advanced Open Water Diver Course
Once you’re a certified diver, the Advanced Open Water course is the next step if you want to be able to do more. Getting this certification allows you to do all different kinds of dives – you can go deeper, dive at night, start exploring caverns and wrecks, and learn to use technical gear like enriched air and dry suits, to name a few. After missing out on a wreck when I was diving in Koh Chang, Thailand, I was determined to do the advanced course and make sure I didn’t get sidelined again.
It’d been years since Jen and I did our Open Water certification on the Thai island of Koh Tao, so I was a little fuzzy on what PADI courses are like. But what I did remember was that it was pretty intense – a lot of instructional videos, discussion with the teacher, homework assignments, studying, and quizzes.
As it turns out, the Advanced Open Water certification is a complete 180 from that. As much as I loved diving in Tulamben, I honestly wasn’t too impressed with the course itself. While the Open Water Certification involves a lot of instruction and pool time at the dive shop, this wasn’t even really a course; you just go on five different dives, and then you’re done. No classes, assignments, or tests. There was a manual, but I probably could have gotten through the dives without it. (Read it, though – you’ll be a better diver for it.)
So rather than a course, the Advanced Open Water really felt more like a way to sell a dive package. Perhaps this is why so many divers attribute the PADI acronym to mean “Put another dollar in.” But since this is Bali, the course was only $220, or $44 per dive, which was well worth it for the experience.
Walking to Tulamben’s Dive Sites
Good news for anyone who gets seasick: in Tulamben, dive sites are close to the shore, so no boat ride needed. Instead, after donning my wetsuit at the shop before each dive, I walked across the street mask in hand, and sauntered down to the beach a couple minutes away.
Out on the gravelly shore, I went through my safety check with the instructor and sat on a rickety wooden bench to get into my BCD and tank. Then, we just walked into the water, slipped on our flippers, and swam out 20 yards or so before descending. You’d never imagine what lies beneath the surface such a short distance from the shore.
My Five Dives in Tulamben
The Advanced Open Water certification requires going on five different dives. A deep dive to thirty meters and an underwater navigation dive are required, and then you can choose three dives from PADI’s adventure set. For those, I chose a wreck dive (the whole point of going diving in Tulamben!), a night dive, and an underwater photography dive.
Shipwrecked: The Famed Bali Wreck Dive
If divers know this area of Bali for one thing, it’s the Tulamben shipwreck. The USAT Liberty wreck was the main thing that drew me there, so I was beyond excited to see it on my first dive.
Unlike most wreck dive sites, the Liberty didn’t actually sink. After getting damaged by a torpedo during World War II, the ship was towed onto the beach in Tulamben to be salvaged, where it sat for twenty years. But when nearby Mt. Agung erupted in the mid ‘60s, the resulting earthquake jostled the Liberty back into the water, where it slid to its final resting place.
This wreck has really put Tulamben diving on the map because there’s so much of the ship to explore. The Liberty is over 400 feet long, and its orientation on a sandy slope means it can be visited at depths anywhere between 25 and 100 feet.
For my dive, we stuck to the shallow sections, where there’s plenty of light from the surface. It was still a really confusing experience, and with the ship standing on its end, I had trouble knowing which way was up.
Since the Liberty was a transport ship, its most noticeable feature is the 400-foot-long deck, which would normally be festooned with navigational equipment, communications towers, and a spider web of cables. Fortunately, the ship was partially dismantled by American forces and Balinese salvage teams, so the deck is mostly free of hazards.
While movies portray wreck diving as this mysterious adventure where a shark, alien, or dead body could pop out at any moment, it’s actually really difficult, and the process is excruciatingly slow. One wrong move and you’ll kick up on the sediment, leaving you completely blind and fumbling with a safety line just to get out of the ship.
Even the Advanced Open Water certification is only enough to dive wrecks that have wide-open spaces to swim through. If you want to explore tight quarters like you see in the movies, you’ll need to take a course specifically on wreck diving.
Finding My Way: The Navigational Dive
My next dive felt less like a fun adventure and a bit more like school, but it was an important one nonetheless.
Swimming around on the surface of the water, finding your way isn’t really something you have to think about; you can just look towards the beach to navigate back. Not so when you go beneath the surface, though, where buoyancy throws off your ability to know which way is up, underwater currents spin you around, and the only “landmarks” are patches of coral.
To be a confident diver, you have to learn how to navigate this alien environment and at least maintain a general idea of your position. It’s not a fun experience to finish a dive and realize you’re (somehow!) a hundred yards from the boat or shore.
To be able to navigate underwater, you need to familiarize yourself with a map of the dive site beforehand and pencil in the route you’ll be taking. Following that route requires just two things – a dive compass and the ability to count. The compass tells you which way you’re going, and counting your number of flipper kicks tells you how far you’ve gone (theoretically).
I struggled to get the same distance out of each kick, and I’m sure I would have been absolutely lost without an instructor leading the way. Because I was so focused on the drill, I didn’t have the chance to look around much on this dive (though it probably would have helped with the navigation if I’d memorized some landmarks). I’m going to have to work on kicking more consistently next time I go diving.
Way Below the Surface: The Deep Dive
The deep dive is where things can get a little more dangerous. The deeper you are, the more complications that can arise: nitrogen intoxication, running out of air (you go through it faster at depth), and the big worry, decompression sickness.
Ask any avid diver, and they’ll say you don’t even need to go deep to see the cool stuff. The colorful coral and exotic fish divers usually want to see love the sunlight, so they live near the surface where it’s lighter. The one exception to this rule? Diving shipwrecks, which are often deeper than the 18 meters permitted under PADI’s Open Water certification.
The Advanced Open Water course requires completing a dive down to 30 meters. My deep dive took me back to the Liberty, and this time we descended all the way down to its deepest point.
Since this was supposed to be a training dive on depth, we didn’t enter the ship this time around. Instead, I just focused on breathing at 30 meters – which is harder than it sounds. The water pressure at that depth is four times what it is at sea level, and you can feel the extra effort it takes to inhale each breath.
My instructor demonstrated the power of that extra pressure by cracking open an egg, the contents of which quickly compress into a tight little ball you can bat around underwater. Aside from that amusing show, there wasn’t much to see at 30 meters, since it’s pretty dark at that depth and not much lives down there. The extra pressure caused me to run through my air supply in less than half an hour anyway, so it was soon time to resurface.
Blacked Out: The Night Dive
Having already done two dives that day, I went back to my hotel to rest for a few hours after the deep dive. Around sunset, it was time for another new-to-me experience: a night dive.
My instructor and I got geared up on the beach as usual, this time carrying two dive lights, which are essentially huge extra-bright flashlights that overheat if they’re not submerged. By the time we got out in the water, the sun was starting to go below the horizon.
I assumed diving at night would just be sort of a novelty – pawing my way through the inky waters and maybe catching some nocturnal sea creatures venturing out for their evening hunt. Oh, how wrong I was…
It was so much more amazing than I ever could have imagined. We went back to the Liberty wreck, and it looked so otherworldly without the sunlight filtering through its crevices. Colors felt more vivid, and everything I shined my light on stood out in high contrast against the darkness.
The tunnel vision that came with a single beam of light also helped me to stay focused during the dive. Without the sunlight as a guide, it’s way too easy to forget which way is up, so I needed to be hyper-vigilant of my position and make sure I didn’t drift too far from the instructor.
I can’t recommend night diving enough. If you’ve never tried it, it must be one of the most amazing experiences you can have underwater.
In Focus: The Underwater Photography Dive
My last dive in Tulamben focused on underwater photography, which felt like the perfect fun dive to cap off the course. It was also an important part of the certification for me, as I was always disappointed I never had much to show for my dives in Thailand.
The beginning of this dive was fairly uneventful, just snapping photos of sea urchins and a few schools of tiny fish. But half an hour in, we came upon one of the most sought after creatures in the Tulamben diving scene: a Mola mola, also known as a sunfish.
The world’s biggest bony fish, these creatures are absolutely massive. They’re around six feet long and weigh anywhere between 500 and 2,000 lbs.
At first, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at. It just looked like a big flat disk, with two fins jutting off at strange angles. It wasn’t moving at all, just bobbing up and down in the current like it might be dead. But every once in a while, the eyes would move and the mouth would quiver.
I didn’t even know what a Mola mola was at the time, but I could tell my instructor was stoked, and we took several selfies with the monster fish. When we reached the surface and he no longer needed to contain his excitement, he started shouting about what we’d seen to all the other divers on the beach.
I’d had no clue that a Mola mola sighting is incredibly rare, but it’s something many divers spend years hoping for. What better way to have finished the course?
I will say, I was a little annoyed that the dive shop insisted I use their Olympus point-and-shoot camera during the dive, rather than my own GoPro (which I had brought for just this occasion). The GoPro takes much higher-quality underwater photos, and I wish my Mola mola selfies weren’t so blurry!
Getting to Tulamben
If there’s one thing that differentiates Bali from the rest of Southeast Asia travel-wise, it’s the island’s abysmal public transportation system, and you’ll often hear people talking about the “taxi mafia.”
What they mean is that private taxi drivers seem to have collectively prevented a regular bus system from developing on Bali, while also violently threatening anyone who drives for rideshare companies (GoJek and Grab) or even official taxi companies like Bluebird, which charge a more reasonable price.
So private transportation is the norm on Bali, and it seems like there is an agreement among drivers to keep prices high. It’s not a terrible deal if you’re traveling with a group, but if you’re going solo, prepare to pay out the nose for a ride across the island. A taxi from Ubud to Tulambem costs around $40 for the four-hour drive.
One alternative is the Perama Shuttle, though I have no idea how they’ve evaded the wrath of the taxi mafia. Perama operates a somewhat janky van/bus hybrid vehicle that runs to some of the more popular towns around the island. The trip from Ubud to Tulamben is about $12 one-way, and you can book ahead online.
Tulamben Hotels & Dive Shops
In Tulamben, diving is the main attraction, and it seems like every business in town is a combined hotel and dive center. There are plenty of options for where to stay and who to dive with, at all price points. These are a few of the top places I found in Tulamben.
Pebble & Fins Bali Resort: A popular rustic-chic hostel with dorms and private rooms
Ocean Villa Dive Resort: A good mid-range option and one of the highest-rated hotels in Tulamben
Relax Bali Dive & Spa Resort: One of the most upscale places in town, where every room is a luxurious bungalow
I ended up staying at Sea Hua Ha Ha Diver Resort, which had one of the cheapest private rooms in town at $13. It was a great place and the owner was super friendly, but I could tell he was disappointed I’d already booked my dives and transport elsewhere.
Another thing that’s somewhat unique to Bali (and not just Tulamben) is that hotels really expect you to book transportation, diving, bike rentals, and whatever else with them. I got a better deal by booking separately, but know that you might face some hassle at your hotel if you don’t go through them (and at your dive shop, if you don’t stay there).
Besides diving, there isn’t much to do in Tulamben, so I wouldn’t book more than a day past your dives. There’s not a whole lot of variety in the restaurants either, but everything looks good after a long day in the water.
Have you been diving in Bali? Tell me about it in the comments!