Learning to Dive – Tulamben

Gunung Agung on Bali.
Gunung Agung on Bali.

Learning to dive is deceptively easy, which is apparently a problem in some respects. Oodles of divers put through their paces in blocks of eight in a swimming pool and in a calm sea are awarded their dive certifications in a matter of three days.

They are often then convinced they can drop into current and shark-infested waters and badass their way out of the situation, giving custom to decompression chambers and rescue divers everywhere. This was not the route I wanted to go.


I earned my SSI Open Water certification in three days, which was indeed pretty painless. The scuba gear becomes more sophisticated every year and is now easily operationalby a mentally average 11-year-old.

The most important part is learning how to breathe, an instinct that can be hard to override for many people when below the water, where we’re conditioned to hold our breaths until we can come up for air. Most scuba instructors willrecite KEEP BREATHING like a sort of dark incantation.

The main trick to learn, in my estimation, is buoyancy control, which is a nice way of saying “floating in one place without bouncing off the bottom and accompanying pointy stinging coral every five minutes.” This can be achieved with a combination of proper weighting, breathing in and out when needed, and a lot of practice, especially swimming around in circles with fins.


If you want to snap a picture of a shy garden eel or a paranoiac mantis shrimp, this is especially important: understandably, the flightier creatures don’t take kindly to being suddenly fallen upon by an alien creature wearing Lycra.

I did the “open water” bit of my Open Water and Advanced SSI courses at Tulamben, a famous dive site in Bali where the wreck of the US transport ship USAT Liberty lies in relatively shallow water off the rocky black-stone beach.

The Tulamben wreck. Atmospheric.
The Tulamben wreck. Atmospheric.

It’s one of the most shallow and thus easy to dive wrecks on the planet: the ship was initially stranded on the beach in 1942 after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and then was washed into the ocean by the 1963 eruption of the Gunung Agun volcano.

Now, the area surrounding the Tulamben wreck is the epicenter of diving in Bali, and also happens to be a remarkable source of underwater Indonesian biodiversity. It’s also a gorgeous place: divers walk into electric blue water off a beach covered in black and reddish pebbles, dotted with swaying coconut palm trees. Sure, the pebbles are large and unpleasant to walk on in those obnoxiously thin scuba diving boots, but nothing pleasurable comes unaccompanied with pain — or that’s what I regularly tell myself.


I made a good choice learning to dive here, I’ve been reassured by my diving friends and by the scuba instructors — and all bias aside, they’re absolutely right.

I could have learned to dive in a silty and freezing California lake, or in an equally silty Louisiana bayou, but instead I timed it so I could dive in the heart of Indonesia’s coral triangle, spotting mantis shrimp, lion fish, and nudibranchi on my first-ever Open Water dive.

Throughout the three days I stayed at the Scuba Sereya resort at Tulamben, finishing off my certification, I spotted creatures many divers wait years to get up close and personal with, including both a red and a lavender Rhinopias scorpion fish with stern expressions and skin flecked with camouflaging tendrils, a juvenile lion fish (bright white and decidedly spiny), an emotionally distressed oriental flying gunard with psychedelic “wings,” three species of garden eels in one spot, and much, much more.


I also became personally acquainted with the strange obsession that are nudibranchi for many divers. Such a passionate international following for what amounts to an unusually colorful slug might sound curious to non-divers, but then you’re in the tropics, spot your first curious invertebrate jewel gliding along the bottom, and are seized with a sudden notion: “Hey, that’s really cool. I wonder if I can find another?”

And then suddenly you too are possessed with this curious passion to spot weird-colored species of slugs in rocky outcrops, and photograph them, and share pictures with your friends, and maybe even spend thousands of dollars to attend lectures on them (as many people do).

Nudibranch seeking is the Easter egg hunt of the tropical Pacific, or an obsession for the kind of people who might regularly collect baseball cards: best of all, they certainly don’t move very quickly. They are occasionally adorably referred to as “nudis.” I am certain someone is producing the t-shirt.

mantis shrimp
mantis shrimp

Scuba Sereya had a book helpfully titled “Nudibranch Behavior” set out in the dining area. It was short. Because, when you get right down to it, handsome little creatures that they are, they are still simple-minded slugs, with relatively simple desires. I did not finish the book but never got to the part where it’s revealed that they hunt in packs and make rudimentary tools.

Do I have any advice for those hoping to learn to dive?

Learn to dive somewhere warm full of remarkable tropical fish, that will beguilingly entice you into taking up yet another fabulously expensive hobby — one that gives you multiple excuses to visit tropical paradises, on the bright side. You can also learn to dive in: a giant Belgium swimming pool, a Midwestern missile silo, or a silty lake possibly occupied by the Loch Ness Monster, but I think this would be a considerably poorer choice. 

Moray eel eating a fish. So cool. Taken by my instructor, Angga.
Moray eel eating a fish. So cool. This was taken by my instructor, Angga, during a night dive.

Learn to dive at a place where you can get individualized attention. I was lucky enough to be the only student Jaka, my excellent instructor, had for my Open Water course, and I was also the only student during my Advanced Open Water course. This can be a matter of luck or expense, depending on your situation, but I think getting individualized advice and supervision during the early days is important. Scuba diving is relatively safe but can kill you if done improperly: you really want to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Borrow or buy a dive computer. Dive computers do all those pesky dive table calculations for you, and although you’re not required to have one during a guided dive, it’s important for you to be able to calculate how long you’ve been underwater and your decompression stop time in case you get in a jam. Figuring out how to use one early in the game will serve you well.

Do a night dive. Sure, it might be harder for the claustrophobic, but a night scuba dive is one of the most awarding (and surrealist) experiences I’ve ever had: floating through warmish gloom, illuminating a strange new cast of characters with a flashlight. It’s nothing if not alien. Tiny feather stars swoop into holes, nocturnal nudibranchi hover about, and the local mantis shrimp and eel population goes into hunting mode (see figure above).

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