In April 2022, we headed to Tulamben for a dive trip. COVID had disrupted such plans for a while, and it was with great anticipation that the trip took off. (We even had to take pre-departure PCRs back then, thankfully such restrictions have now lifted!). Homecoming Tulamben was a three hour drive away from Ngurah Rai and “main Bali”. We watched as roads go narrower and cars reduce to a trickle along windy roads. Tulamben is really two rows of buildings separated by a road, facing the ocean.
While Tulamben used to be busy, with multiple competing dive sites, the Tulamben we saw was quiet, peaceful. Many dive shops, restaurants and resorts remained shuttered.
As the Singapore we know in our mind’s eye become replaced with vistas of trees, hills, distant mountains and blue seas. For most of our stay, we were the only guests. Food is simple fare. The main meals were mostly either Mee Goreng or Nasi Goreng. And there was always papaya juice. For breakfast, we mostly had coffee/tea and banana pancakes with honey. Though diving was the main agenda, we were convinced to make a trip to Mt Agung. At 12.30am we took an hour car ride to Begasih start point. We hit the summit at around 6am. Above the clouds at 2910metres, we could see the crater still steaming and the other smaller peaks of Agung. Our local guides made offerings to the spirits of the land. With cups of coffee in hand, we watched the sky slowly light up, right as waves of thick clouds billow in. Agung was no walk in the park however. There were many talus – slopes formed by the accumulation of broken rock debris from a cliff over a very long period of time. It was exhilarating (in a challenging way) to gain footing going uphill and a pain to descend–almost too heavy on my wobbly knees coming down. It was a grounding experience: The soles of old shoes came off progressively and we literally could feel the earth as we walked. Overall, summiting Agung is one of those experiences worth doing at least once in your life.
Now to the main programme – Diving. We dived a total of 14 times, including one night dive. Mostly we went for muck diving, a term used to refer to environments sparsely populated with large corals or anemones, with calm waters. The “muck” in Tulamben consisted of fine, black sand that had been accumulated for years and years from the eruptions of Mt Agung. Muck diving involves looking for macro photography subjects. It’s a test of neutral buoyancy to shoot these subjects before churning up the muck.
First impression of Tulamben’s dives – large feathery stars were aplenty, as were the lionfish. These were notable for their reputation of stinging spines on their fins and backs. Also known as “firefish” (Pterois volitans), their large, beautiful fins conceal highly venomous dorsal spines whose stabs can can be extremely painful, even fatal. The deeper the spines penetrate, the more venom enters the victim’s body.
Mantis shrimps (Odontodactylus) and the gobies they buddied up with were always close by, ready to shoot back into the hole constructed by the shrimps to hide from danger, at the gobies’ alert. In particular, Odontodactylus scyllarus were colourful, displaying all the colours of the rainbow.
Mostly they were shy, but sometimes they exit their hidey holes of rocky reefs and rubble sufficiently for me to catch a glimpse of their beautiful bodies. The nudibranchs were definitely highlights of the trip. When I saw my first glossodoris cincta, I was besides myself. It was quite a large and thick nudibranch (at least by Singaporean standards) and the colours – yellow, blue, cream with dots, on a light pink base – looked amazing. I learnt that the colouring depends on where it is found. For example, those from the Red Sea have quite dark colouring while those from the Maldives to northern Australia are lighter around the skirt.
And of course, how can I forget my favourite genus of nudibranch – the hypselodoris. I spent many minutes watching them move about in their natural environment, their frilly open gills twitching and turning in the slight waves.
When time came for my first ever night dive, I was pretty nervous. I worried – will I be cold? What if I panic underwater? What if there’s nothing but the dark, black water? As I floated on my BCD to put on my fins underneath a majestic starry night (blurry because of my myopia), I felt a strange feeling of euphoria and that overtook the fear. I dissolved all the troubles into the sky and deflated my BCD.
Within something like five metres of descent, we spotted an octopus scuttling across the sand. Though small, it was unmistakable. I wanted to spend so much longer with it but this was Bali! Soon enough, a dumpling squid (also known as bobtail squid) floated by. This is a creature that’s expert at burrowing into soft sandy silt to hide by day. Some distance away, Dennis was shooting a chonky glittering cuttlefish, unafraid and unbothered. Everything was so alive. It felt like the best pre-dawn intertidal back in Singapore, but on steroids. Best of all, the dive felt so safe and the waters were warmer than I expected. Surfacing, I laughed at how my worries were pretty unfounded. I had always enjoyed night-time and predawn intertidal walks, so being surrounded three dimensionally by potential finds was an electric experience.
A highlight definitely was the rhinopias, spotted at 30 metres. At that depth, the rhinopias’s colour was washed out that it looked brown & dusty, thankfully with flash we can see its true colours — a bright, vibrant red.
The Hairy, Ornate and Robust ghost pipefish (Solenastomus sp.) deserve special mention. In Singapore, these fish which are cousins of seahorses blend in with seagrass as they look like twigs or exceptionally thin strands of seagrass. Here, they similarly avoid the limelight, being coloured and patterned to blend in with their specific environment. The robust ghost pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) alters its appearance to match the grasses or algae of quiet bays, even changing texture and colour.
A main attraction of Tulamben diving was the “wreck dive”. Surrounding the USAT Liberty Shipwreck were coral gardens. I had never been on such a large ship before and seeing the entire wreck plunged into water was a humbling experience. It was here that I encountered my first Napoleon wrasse, among the largest of the wrasse, a group of fish known to practice successive sexual selection, starting life first as a female, then becoming a male with slight changes in environmental and biological (genetic) conditions.
It was a fruitful and storied trip, filled with many moments of falling in love with the ocean– moments I will reminisce and replay again and again in my mind. I enjoyed the minimalism of shore dives. No boat, no fuel, no big splash. Gearing up from the truck, trudging down from pebbles, stones & black sand – a reminder of Mt Agung just in the visible distance. When the day is hot, the waters are a welcome respite: a big blue blanket, calm and unassuming, yet thriving underneath. With eagle eyed divemasters, calm waters, good food, & starry nights, five days and fourteen dives absolutely flew by.
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