Underwater Photography in Bali, Indonesia and at USAT Liberty Wreck
Despite the masses of tourists visiting the island of Bali in Indonesia, diverse dive sites surround the tropical island. On rare occasions, manta rays and the massive mola-mola can be seen in the proximity of the island. The USAT Liberty wreck is a fantastic dive with great vibrant coral growth covering the wreck.
Bali is known best for its beaches and loud, ruthless swarms of tourists. Underwater, the surroundings of the island are pleasant, and despite the massive numbers of tourists visiting the island each year, some dive sites still contain a range of marine life. Although not a diver’s dream destination, good diving and underwater photographic opportunities are present around the island. However, f the primary purpose of your visit is diving or underwater photography, more remote locations in Indonesia are absolutely the way to go.
Most of the activity at the island is centered at the southern end of Bali, near Denpasar. The diving at Bali is primarily located on the eastern side of the island, notably near Padang Bai in the south-east of the island, off the coast of Penida Island, about 1 hour away from Bali by boat, and at Tulamben, located at the mountainous north-eastern corner of Bali island. The most famous dive site of Bali, the USAT Liberty wreck, is located at Tulamben, whilst the rare and highly advertised manta and mola-mola (ocean sunfish) encounters are most probable near Penida island and neighboring Lembongan. Weather is a consideration especially when diving the sites of Penida island, and it is not uncommon for adverse weather to prevent diving at the manta point completely (as happened to me).
To get to the dive sites, the dive companies usually offer a transportation to the boat included in the price of the dive. The transit itself can be quite an exhilarating experience, and undoubtedly the most unsafe part of the day. Some dive companies load the divers to benches on the top of a local pickup truck and proceed to traverse through the chaotic Indonesian traffic at speed. Other dive crews may have safer and more comfortable vans, but the south-east Asian traffic culture is no different.
The coral growth at dive sites near Bali is quite good, but the reefs are often fragmented (in part due to tourism and boating) and separated by large areas of sand. When photographing the reefs, be opportunistic, and do not be hesitant to spend minutes photographing a single cooperative subject if you find a scene with potential. Anemones, stingrays and sea horses are common at Bali, but even the most common creatures of the reef can make for compelling photographs if you are able to capture their emotions and actions effectively.
As a wide angle photographer, I must admit that Bali does not offer the greatest variety of subjects to photograph. I was, however, able to capture some interesting images (below). Notably, the graphic image of the blue spotted stingray works because the animal is lined up in the frame diagonally. The image of the turtle is the best of a series of images I took of the turtle, who did not mind being my subject. I attempted to get an upwards angle on the turtle, which separates the subject effectively from the background, after which I waited for the turtle to show an interesting expression that connects with the viewer. Timing, patience and repetition are key when photographing animal portraits. Unfortunately, the natural lighting at that time at space was not ideal; nevertheless, I captured a great image of the turtle.
Although not my specialty, Bali is a good location for macro underwater photography. Sea horses, nudibranchs and muck dives are common in various parts of the island.
USAT Liberty Wreck: The Best of Bali
USAT Liberty is an American navy transport ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War 2. The ship then beached right off the coast of Bali, making it incredibly easily accessible for diving from the shore. The wreck is situated at Tulamben, in the northern, more mountainous part of Bali. On the shore, a rudimentary shelter with a table, a toilet (without a door) and parking space is present. When I dived the wreck, rainfall between the dives was so strong that the tarp roof of the shelter had to be punctured to prevent the mass of the water on top of it from collapsing the structure. Needless to say that everything everywhere was completely soaked, and the wreck is not even a boat dive! The modest amenities at the dive site only add to the experience; its all about the diving, not feeling like a Saudi royal after all.
The wreck is reached with a short swim from the stairs allowing a pleasant descent to the water. The top of the wreck lies only at about 5 meters, and the whole wreck is shallower than 35 meters. As expected of a WW2 era wreck, USAT Liberty is covered in coral and home to a large variety of fish species. Whilst the fish life is perhaps not quite as stunning as at the SS Yongala wreck in Australia, the Liberty wreck is often rated as one of the best tropical dives. Both macro and wide-angle photographers have no shortage of subjects at the wreck. Trevally, Jacks, Barracuda, turtles and schooling reef fish against the back drop of the wreck’s shape make for compelling subjects.
Visibility is varied at the wreck; when I dived at Tulamben, the strong rainfall between my dives caused the buildup of a visible brown sediment layer on top of the wreck severely decreasing the visibility. If visibility is a concern, lighting subjects at the wreck becomes challenging, and backscatter must be controlled for using suitably outwards-angled strobes, preferably at a medium-low power setting.
My favorite, portfolio-grade shots of the wreck turned out to be the photographs of interesting coral-coated features of the wreck, such as pipes, coral heads, valves, and sponges. A somewhat dark blue background in contrast to the properly exposed foreground subject add dramatic effect to the photographs. Framing the features of the wreck, once identified is generally straightforward (if positioning yourself in the current, maintaining buoyancy control, controlling strobe exposure, avoiding kicking up silt and not framing divers or their bubbles in the frame are not taken into account), with a central positioning of the subject and a slight upwards angle generally leading to the most desirable results.
Silhouettes against of the wreck’s shape against a pleasing blue background can also be successful in creating appealing images; it is important, however, to make sure that the shape of the wreck in the frame is simple and not too scattered, or else it may be too cluttered and unrecognizable. If possible, framing your buddy in the wreck as a part of the silhouette can allow for further more vivid photographs.
The numerous dive sites, relatively affordable diving, and the great USAT Liberty wreck will ensure that a visit to the island will be enjoyable for divers, even if they are not interested in the beaches and nightlife that the island is infamous for.