Diving the Mergui Archipelago
A Northwest perspective
Looking across the Andaman Sea in the evening usually revealed a spectacular sunset.
Burma. The Socialist Republic Union of Myanmar. Both are names for the same country, and a rather mysterious country at that. As many of the countries in Southeast Asia have embraced western tourism over the last few decades, Burma has been slow on the take. While Thailand has been raking in millions of tourist dollars by catering to scuba divers anxious to explore their warm tropical waters, the Burmese have stead fast and kept their waters closed – until around 1997.
When I was asked to attend a regional sales meeting in Bangkok at the end of April, I took it upon myself to seek out the best diving opportunities in this part of the planet. My initial research on the Internet yielded claims of fantastic and world class diving off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Claims included good visibility, 85 degree water, nice reefs, multiple species of sharks, possible whale sharks, and friendly people. However as I continued to do my research and investigate the premiere sites in this area, I quickly noted that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of live aboard dive vessels and day boats from local resorts working these sites. I had nightmarish flashbacks to diving some of the northern wrecks and reefs along the Sinai in the Red Sea; combat diving, destroyed reefs, and dozens of divers harassing a poor lone moray or passing turtle. No, this was not for me.
I wanted something a little more remote and pristine. I wanted to visit somewhere I could dive and not see another dive boat. I wanted to swim with pelagics amongst unspoiled reefs and countless, colorless reef fish and corals. That’s where Burma seemed to fit in. Opportunities to dive with silver tipped sharks appeared to be all but guaranteed. Mantas and whale sharks were distinct possibilities. White tipped reef sharks and gray reef sharks were common encounters. And best of all the Burmese sites were well out of striking distance of all the day boats and only a handful of live aboard vessels worked this area.
The boat I selected was the Faah Yai (pronounced "feye-yeye"), which is Thai for "big sky". Although Burmese waters are open for scuba diving, the dive boats working these waters are of Thai origin. Burma appears to lack the infrastructure, business incentives, and/or (probably and) experience to be running dive operations locally – at least for now. I chose the Faah Yai for several reasons: First, her sole agenda was Burmese waters. This boat specialized in diving the Mergui Archipeago off the eastern Burmese coast; second, she catered to a maximum of 10 divers at a time. Many of the dive boat in this area handle up to 20 divers; and third, she was the only vessel running in this area this late in the season. OK, so I had no choice.
Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I flew from Bangkok to the unknown town of Ranong where the Faah Yai is based. Ranong is located very close to the Burmese boarder and north of Phuket (pronounce not the way you think, but rather "pooh-ket") Island. Phuket is where almost all the dive charters who operate in the Andaman Sea are based. I arrived in Ranong a day early and stayed at the Ranong Royal Princess Hotel, which claims to be the nicest hotel in the area. Unfortunately, this is not saying much. The lobby was presentable and the food in the restaurant was outstanding, but it stopped there. Ranong is not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination, but instead your stereotypical third world Southeast Asia port town. I will not be planning any vacations to Ranong in the near future.
The next afternoon it was off to the dive boat. The charter sent a van for me that picked up passengers from Phuket (a four hour drive away), Ranong airport, and the Royal Princess Hotel. There were seven of us in total – four Americans, two Germans, and a Frenchman. We cleared Thai immigration in Ranong and made our way to a water taxi that took us to Kaw Thaung in Burma to wait for the Faay Yai and clear Burmese immigration. The Faah Yai showed up about an hour after we arrived at Kaw Thaung. We boardered the Faah Yai and waited another hour for the Burmese immigration officer to come to our boat and collect park fees ($120 US per person). The strange thing is that the Burmese immigration officer not only took our money, but also held our passports until we returned. I guess that guarantees we will come back. After we cleared the paperwork, we were finally off on our little adventure. My anticipation was three or four dives a day, conditions permitting.
The Faah Yai is a 75 foot, twin engine motor yacht. Her wooden hull was constructed about 10 years ago, however she was given a major work-over about 5 years ago. She has three decks – 2 cabins and the engine room on the lower deck, 3 cabins and the dive platform on the middle deck, and the crews quarters, pilot house, and salon on the top deck. Unlike the live aboard I toured with in the Red Sea, the salon was not air conditioned.
The MV Faah Yai. Although not a luxury vessel, she is more than adequate for a weeks diving.
The boat was relatively clean and well kept. The crew definitely took some pride in the vessels appearance. Decks and railing were all wiped down after each rain, the carpets were kept clean, ropes were properly stowed, and everything was kept in its place. However, The Faah Yai is not what I would consider a luxury dive vessel. She is adequate for the task she serves, but is not of the same caliber as the higher end live aboard vessel that I chartered while in the Red Sea.
Each of the air conditioned rooms had its own shower and head. Each shower had its own hot water heater and offered instant hot water, which was nice. Some of the rooms had bunks, others had a single double bed.
The dive platform was adequate but not quite as spacious as I would have hoped. The ladder system could have been better, but it worked. There were two fresh water hoses to rinse off with when getting back on board.
The Faah Yai towed a problematic 12" rigid hull inflatable. About half the time we dove from it, and the other times we just jumped off the back of the Faah Yai. On several occasion the motor on the inflatable quit and the Faah Yai had to come get us, which was no big deal. The motor on the inflatable looks like it is a badly abused old Yamaha. In fact, the crew accidentally dropped the motor overboard on our second day, but got it running again. No wonder it is problematic.
The crew was an interesting mix. We had a French dive master. The regular dive guide who that assists the dive master was not available, so we had a substitute assistant dive guide from the United States. The cook was Thai as was the rest of the crew, including the captain.
Sunan, our wonderful cook, and her beloved cat on the foredeck on the Faah Yai.
The dive guides were ultimately a bit disappointing. Unlike the Red Sea, the divemaster seemed to be calling the shots on the boat rather than the captain. He gave very detailed dive briefings, but once in the water we were pretty much on our own. After the first dive, the American dive guide seemed way more interested in her own agenda than making certain the rest of us were enjoying our dives. It could be because we were a relatively highly experienced group – me being the second most junior diver in our group with a mere 800 dives. All the same, my feeling is that she should have been hanging with the rest of us rather than being first off the boat, diving straight down to 140-150 fsw with her boyfriend, and getting out of the water a good 20 minutes before the rest of us.
The rest of the boat crew was very descent. Almost none of them spoke English, but they were relentless in helping us with our gear, managing our cameras, keeping the decks orderly, and continually re-fixing the dilapidated outboard. The cook was particularly interesting. She spoke descent although somewhat broken English and was quite a character. In addition to being good company, she served up incredible meal after incredible meal. She offered a nice blend of some western dishes and traditional Thai cuisine. Needless to say, no one went hungry on the boat. Like almost all the Thai I met, the crew was very friendly. Smile, and you get a sincere smile in return which is far more than you get in some areas of the world.
Hot. Hot and humid. Daytime temp were in the 90s, as was the humidity. Everyone ran around in the boat in shorts, t-shirts, and bathing suits. No shoes allowed, which was just fine. If the cabins were not air conditioned, sleeping would have been miserable. We usually hung out in the salon between dives, which in my opinion needed some type of climate control.
Storms rolled through the area on a regular basis. Sometimes we got lightning, sometimes we got wind, sometimes we got rain, and sometimes we got all three. The storms were usually short lived and would pass within an hour. When it does rain in this part of the world, it can rain VERY hard. The stormy season tends to run from May to October, and most of the live aboards and diving off the west coast of Thailand and Burma tend to shuts down during that time.
Not really knowing what to expect, I tried to keep my expectations as open as I could. I did have preconceived expectations of diving with silvertip sharks. I was also told that the visibility tends to range between 30 and 90 feet. Other than that, I had no real idea what to expect. Even with that, there were some major disappointments with the diving. And there were some incredible surprises.
Nemo and Marlin were waiting for us at most of the current and surge swept sites.
First, let’s get the let downers out of the way.
Advanced diving: Diving in this area is NOT novice diving by any stretch of the imagination. As stated earlier, our seven divers were very experienced and were able to handle the conditions. If my wife was on this trip, she would not have enjoyed most of the diving. I did not realize that this area is subject to tidal exchanges of up to 18 feet which is peculiar as the Andaman Sea is close to the equator. Usually tidal exchanges increase the farther you get from the equator. Heck, Seattle "only" has 16 foot exchanges and is about 40 degrees further north from the equator than the Mergui Archipelago. The monstrous tidal exchanges inherent to this area have something to do with the geography. At certain times of the month the exchanges are relatively mild. But at other times – look out! I was diving Burma during one of those "look out!" weeks. Combine this with the fact that half the time the currents were not doing what the divemaster expected and you can see how many of the dives became "huffers" and tank burners. Unfortunately there in no real drift diving here – it is more "duck and cover" or "fight your way around the corner and hope the current is less on the other side" diving. The few times our guides were with us, they would often charge off into the current leaving those of us with camera gear with the decision of trying to push our gear through the current and huffing air or falling back. After a couple of air huffing dives, I figured my most enjoyable route was to simply do my own thing; namely find some nice spot out of the current and go from there.
Touching the bottom is a no-no, but the camouflage and highly poisonous spines of the scorpion fish keeps divers honest.
Dynamite fishing: The second big disappointment was dynamite fishing. Yep, that’s right, using explosives to fish. Although it is illegal, the local Burmese still use this tactic with regularity. In fact we heard a charge go off miles away while we were underwater on our fist day of diving. The locals make crude explosives with fertilizer and diesel fuel, place it in a clay pot, attach an underwater fuse, and drop it over the side of the boat by the reef. The shock wave will kill anything around.
Armored in their stone fortress, moray eels seem to better survive the dynamite fishing that do the pelagic fish. Small morays of various species could be found on most dives.
Guesstimates I heard is that about 20% of the kill will float to the surface. The other 80% sinks to the bottom and is wasted. Although the corals in the area are relatively unaffected, the fish stocks have been decimated. Noticeably absent are the large schools of snappers, large groupers and other larger reef fish that I have seen at most other tropical locations. There are fish around, but they are relatively small and more sparse than other tropical locations I have been to.
Lionfish of several varieties could be found at most dive sites.
Lack of sharks: Some might actually think this is a benefit, but I love to dive with sharks. Diving with silver tips was the main reason I wanted to come to this area. But as our divemaster put it, the day of the shark in the Thailand/Burma area appears to be over – at least for now. Between the dynamite fishing and shark finning (catching sharks and cutting the fins off them to sell to Japan/China) the abundant silver tips I read about seem to be history.
You have know what you are going to find lurking under a rocky ledge. At one site, we found this Jenkins ray.
The Burma Banks: This trip was sold as visiting various dive sites in Burma, possibly including the Burma Banks. The Burma Banks is where the shelf that contains the Andaman Sea rises to divable depths just before it drops away to great depths into the Indian Ocean. Some of the web sites claimed that shark and large fish routinely patrol this drop-off. Our divemaster, who has been working this area for the last five years, stated that the Burma Banks is essentially a desert with very few fish and even fewer sharks. Again, the main suspect is dynamite fishing. The sharks that used to hang out here have been chased away. We therefore did not go out to the Burma Banks.
Visibility: The visibility was advertised as 30-90 feet, which is about right. However, at two of the sites the vis was maybe 30 feet – and the water was green. At the eight other sites we were at the water was a deep blue – and vis was typically 50 to 100 feet.
Number of dives: The trip called for 3 or 4 dives a day over 7 days of diving. For the first five days, we followed this schedule. However, on the last two days we only got in one dive each day. Although they were spectacular dives, it is hard to fill the day on the boat with only one dive. Weather was the supposed excuse, but the divemaster did not seem to have a contingency plan if the weather deteriorated. I would rather do a dive on a shallow reef with 20 feet of visibility than do no dive at all. He did not see it that way. In all, I got in 20 dives on the trip. I was expecting at least four or five more.
The uniquely distinctive triangular shaped cowfish hanging out with by a seafan.
And now on to the good stuff:
World-class sites: Two of the ten sites we dove were what I would consider world-class, even with the somewhat depleted fish stocks. Black Rock and Western Rocky are simply phenomenal sites.
Black Rock is maybe 100 yards in length and located a good 20 miles from the next nearest landmass. Below, mantas await.
Western Rocky is an expansive pinnacle that offers spectacular corals and hoards of robust and beautiful seafans. The west side of Western Rocky sported an absolutely stunning, densely packed seafan garden running from about 90 fsw to over 130 fsw. To compliment the coral formations there were large shoals of tiny glass fish, fairy basslets, sweetlips, scorpion fish, blotch rays, anemone fish, and many other small, colorful reef fish.
Swimming with docile 8 foot long leopard sharks is always a very welcome experience.
However, the leopard sharks stole the show at this site. In appearance, a leopard shark kind of resembles a nurse shark with a tail almost half the length of the body. However, the coloration resembles that of a leopard – a golden skin covered in black spots – very striking indeed. On my first dive here, I spotted two. On the second dive, six. Or should I say the leopard sharks spotted me. Given some time, these six to eight foot gentle giants would often come right up to me and some of the other divers.
Black Rock was equally as spectacular. Visibility was the best at this site, approaching 100 feet at certain points. Black Rock boasts schools of pickhandle barracuda with a few great barracuda cautiously mulling about. A school of large batfish also could be found with regularity hanging out at one corner of the rock.
Barracuda anyone? These are pickhandle barracuda, but we also saw several solitary great barracuda roaming the waters.
However, the draw at this site was indisputably the manta rays. These graceful giants continuously cruised the northwest corner of the rock on every dive, which serves as a cleaning station.
With the help of digital photographs we were able to identify nine different individuals, the biggest of which was about 12 feet across, and the smallest 6 feet. On several occasions I got to witness two or three manta gliding through the water together. I would sit in awe watching these graceful rays wondering if I really want witness this spectacle through the viewfinder of my digital video camera. Most of the time I opted to just take it all in and forget the video. We spent 2 days at Black Rock and did a total of seven dives. I will not be forgetting Black Rock any time soon.
Ahhh…the manta rays. Although we spent two days and seven dives with these graceful creatures, I could have spent all 7 days at this site. Who needs Yap?
Lightning: We had spectacular lightning storms on most evenings. Sometimes we got rain, most of the time we did not. On our fifth day we set out to do a night dive on a delightful little reef that we first dove in the afternoon. There was not much current at this site, and a robust coral reef cascaded down to about 60 fsw before giving way to a sandy substrate. We motored out to the dive site in the inflatable as the sun set. We could see the lightning in the distance moving towards us in a hurry and intesifying. The three of that opted to dive this evening had a spectacular dive with lightning illuminating the water every 20 to 30 seconds as the storm passed overhead. When the lightning would flash, it was as bright as daylight underwater.
Remoteness: The sites we visited were remote enough that they did not appear to be victimized by overdiving, as did many of those in the north Red Sea. The Burma area is a hard one to reach – and relatively expensive. The entire week we were out we only saw one other dive boat. Part of the reason was May is the end of the diving season in this area, however the seclusion was still nice and appreciated. The only other boats we saw for the entire week were sea gypsies – native Burmese in 20+ foot long open boats with only a tarp for shelter. These people essentially live in these boats and making there "living" fishing. Every time I would see one of these little boats, I would be very thankful for my quality of life.
With only two exceptions, all the other boats we say the entire week were sea gypies, local Burmese that make their livelihood off the sea.
Cuttlefish: I had seen a single cuttlefish in the Red Sea. It was maybe 6 inches long. However, out here we had cuttlefish encounters on most dives, and these cephalopods were a robust 18" in length. They tend to be stand-offish, however given time and no sudden actions many of the cuttlefish would come over to us and right up to my video lights. Cuttlefish are just cool.
Personal encounters with curious cuttlefish over 16" in length were fairly common.
This trip cost me the better part of $2000 excluding airfare - $1680 for the live aboard, $120 in park fees, and a couple hundred dollars in crew tip, hotels before and after the stay, and meals. Although Thailand is typically a very economical vacation destination in may respects (good meals often cost US$1-$4), I would say that that this trip was a mediocre value based upon the quality of the operation and diving and especially the quantity of diving. If manta encounters were a certainty, I would be more inclined to go back again. However, they are not. I personally think it was well worth seeing this part of the world, but once is probably enough.