The Bali tsunami of 1978

Five or so years ago I wrote an article on the history of Sanur. In talking with some of the older village people, I found out that in 1978* or thereabouts there was what the villagers called “air besar” or an exceptionally high tide that surged onto the beach and up the (then) dirt lanes leading through the coconut groves where now all is paved and concreted and towered. Some of the souvenir kiosks by the Bali Beach and Tanjung Sari hotels were washed away. The villagers told me that in retrospect, after they’d seen on TV the Aceh tsunami disaster—and “tsunami” became part of the national language and country’s psychic makeup—that this had been a small tsunami, not a natural spring tide with high surf.

The other week, in the water with Timmy Watts, one of the Pillars of the Community (unlike us hermits in the hole, emerging only for swell and cold sunset beers), Watts said that he had friends surfing out at Padang-Padang that day in 1978. They reported big surges and currents.

The 1994 night-time tsunami that famously wiped out the G-land surf camp (fortunately no loss of lives) didn’t appear to effect Bali.

But even though all geological eyes are on the tectonic plates and faults off Sumatra, there’s nothing to say a tsunami couldn’t happen here. I reckon if a 20 foot tsunami hit either the Sanur or the Kuta coast, the water would flood clear across to the other side. You have to remember that a tsunami isn’t just a surface wave but the leading edge of huge volume of raised sea level. It just keeps coming and coming, like the jaw-dropping footage of the recent Japanese tsunami so terrifyingly demonstrates.

I would imagine that a 20 to 30 foot tsunami hitting the Uluwatu coasts would take down structures up along the cliff top. I base this from what I saw in Aceh when I was there doing relief work. Flying along in a helicopter over a small island off the destroyed town of Calang, I saw on top of a hundred foot high curved cliff a grove of tree that that had been absolutely flattened. The trees were laying flat in a spray pattern, their tops facing away from the curved top of the cliff. The wave had exploded up that rock face with enough force to uproot those big trees and knock them down neat as matchsticks..

Not comfortable to think about, but something to think about regardless.

*I wasn’t here at the time. In 1978 I was starting my last year of college in the American Midwest, with the closest ocean and surf a thousand miles away (Lake Michigan didn’t count, and still doesn’t, okay). For a lad with sea-salty heart, scented with jasmine**, that dreary country weighed me down like a thousand bushels of corn.

** This is just me trying to write poetically. Truth to tell, I’ve never liked the smell of jasmine, too cloying, just like I don’t much like durian—I can eat it but I don’t fall into paroxysms of delight. So sue me.

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5 Responses to The Bali tsunami of 1978

  1. Andre Paes says:

    I looked into the us geological survey website, which is a very reliable us government sponsored agency and could not find any recorded earthquick either at or around the Bali island in 1978. However in 1979 there were 4 earthquakes on the east coast of Bali, 3 of them strong ( 6 on the ritcher scale). Therefore I would guess that the tsunami seen in Sanur was probably in 1979. Following is the address with historical data for Bali earthquakes. Note that the 1994 earthquake off the coast of east java and the tsunami that followed (and hit G-LAND) is recorded there.

  2. Thanks for the correction! We had a good 6.1 jolt yesterday, and the USGS website had it reported within minutes.

    In 1979 I was about to graduate….couldn’t wait to get back home.

  3. Jess says:

    My mum grew up in Lembongan, and I remember her telling me stories of a “big wave” that washed up past the school in jungut batu village and into the scrub behind it when she was 8 or 9, now it all makes sense!
    Also loved the write up on Simon, you hit the nail on the head with every description!

    • xavi roca, spain says:

      i used to come every year to bali.,and i remenber a sing of tsunami danger, in cenningan island, near a temple, after crossing the bridge,on the way to cenningan suurf break.
      and very old man told me about a big wave 35 years ago.
      xavi ,spain

  4. Pingback: A note on Bali earthquakes and tsunamis | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

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