Myanmar (Burma) has some of the most beautiful sailing grounds in Asia, and arguably the world. The southern islands of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago lie only one hundred and twenty nautical miles to the north of Phuket and directly west of the Thai border town of Ranong. There are approximately eight hundred pristine and untouched islands opposite Myanmar’s Tennasserim coast, forming one of the last remaining untouched paradises on the planet.
Lying only 180 kms to the north of Phuket, comprising over eight hundred islands and covering an area of ten thousand square miles, the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar (Burma) had, until January 1997, been closed to all foreigners for over fifty years.
This beautiful area is totally untouched by modern development and the majority of the islands are densely forested and mountainous, with impenetrable jungle meeting white sand beaches.
Due to the Archipelago’s virtual isolation, the islands and surrounding seas are alive with an amazing diversity of wildlife, flora and fauna. Parrots, hornbills, sea eagles, kites and herons fill the skies, whilst on land the animal population includes wild cattle, elephants, monkeys, deer, wild pigs, tigers, crocodiles and rhinoceros.
The only human inhabitants in the area are the sea gypsies, a nomadic sea-faring race whose lifestyle has changed very little over the years, and who still practice the same fishing and boat building techniques used for generations.
The human inhabitants of the area are a mixed race of sea nomads locally known as ‘Salones’ or ‘Mowken’. Salones have their own language and live with their extended families (dogs and cats included) onboard tarred, wooden boats. They survive on a diet of fish, sea cucumber and island game. On shore there is an abundance of fresh water, wild animals and reptiles to help sustain them. They are the real “Sea Gypsies” of the archipelago, preferring not to live ashore but constantly move from island to island within the group. The ‘Mowken’ are neither inquisitive nor afraid and prefer to be left alone.
Animal and bird life is prolific on the islands. Although impenetrable jungle prevents sighting of larger mammals, their tracks are plentiful above the high tide mark on the beaches of larger islands. Macaque (pronounced ma-cak) monkeys and large monitor lizards are seen frequently on the beaches and rocky shorelines. Monkeys visit the shoreline at low tide to feed on crabs, eating the sweet meat under the shell and discarding the rest to the sea. The larger islands are believed to support a wide variety of mammals and reptiles within the dense rain forests, although no formal study has been done since the turn of the century. Crocodiles have been seen, and there has even been a suggestion that the rare Asian rhinoceros might still survive on the larger islands. There are literally hundreds of anchorage’s in this southern Mergui group
Mergui Archipelago Description
A huge unpopulated group of islands and reefs
In the early 1990’s, several dive operators out of Phuket, looking for new diving frontiers in the Andaman Sea, began exploring a series of underwater mountains 90 nautical miles northwest of the Similan Islands that came to be known as the Burma Banks (this name came from dive shops and has nothing to do with local names or names on maps). In a very short time, the Burma Banks became recognized as one of the best places for divers to observe sharks close-up and personal–something lacking in Thailand. As it turns out, this was just the beginning. Even though these banks lie in international waters, by the middle of the decade the Myanmar (Burmese) authorities became aware and uneasy about the activity off of their coastline and asked the dive boats to seek official permission from the government to dive there.
After three-years of negotiations, in 1997 consent was finally given to not only visit the now famous Burma Banks, but also the islands in Myanmar’s inshore waters: The Mergui Archipelago or the Myeik Archipelago. This opened up a whole new range of diving possibilities in the Andaman Sea, and operators soon began promoting these new destinations offering multi-day trips. Some boats visit both Thailand and Mergui on the same itinerary, while others confine the journey to only Myanmar. The main obstacle the area has to conventional diving is the distances between dive sites. A typical eight-day circuit including Thailand and Mergui can cover over 1,000 kilometers. Obviously, day-trips are not and will never be, practical for exploring the area.
Lush, Unexplored Area
Historically, the archipelago had been an important area for trade between Eastern and Western civilizations particularly in the 18th Century. After World War Two with the major political changes that took place in Burma and rest of Southeast Asia, the archipelago fell into obscurity, resulting in over 50 years of very little human activity. With over 300 islands, some of them the size of Singapore or Phuket, and most of them completely uninhabited, the area has unlimited potential as a playground for divers, yachties, kayakers or paddlers, naturalists, and other pleasure seekers. Steps have already been taken to preserve the islands, and the government seems to be very interested in developing the area in a positive way. Unfortunately, they are still ignoring the problem of blast fishing, and many sites show signs of wear and tear that the dynamite causes.
Although blast fishing has long been a popular and easy way to make a quick buck, where tourism industries have developed, governments have come to realize that tourism can bring more money and prosperity to the people living in the area. This has effectively brought the blasting to a halt. Blasting, of course, only benefits a few, while tourism can benefit a whole population. The Myanmar Government must come to understand this, and separate political and environmental affairs for the benefit of their country and it’s population. Meanwhile, the diving is excellent, but could be better if more controls were implemented.
A user fee is charged by the Myanmar authorities to enter and dive the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago. All boats enter and depart via Kawthaung (Ko Song or Victoria Point are other names for it), just west of Ranong, Thailand. All boats are required to enter and exit the area from here: gone are the days where you could make a quick run out from the Surin or Similan Islands (at least legally; rumors are some boats are violating this).
The Burma Banks are no longer the prime reason to visit the area, as there are so many better dive sites. Although sharks and rays are seen on a regular basis both at the Burma Banks and at the islands lying further inshore, environmental problems including longline fishing and trawling has had an effect on this type of wildlife. Much has been written about the area being a place to see sharks and other large fish, but the main reason for visiting, really, is to see the incredible variety of smaller fish and reef invertebrates, many of which are not found in Thai waters. This, and the sheer immensity of the area are reasons to go. If catching sight of large animals is the sole reason for visiting the archipelago, divers will be often disappointed. If you want to see fish and invertebrates not found anywhere else on the face of the earth, and one of the last uninhabited archipelagos in the world, you’ve come to the right place.
Diverse diving environments
There are four types of diving environments in the archipelago: shallow, inshore fringing island reefs where visibility is often poor but the diversity of marine life is unsurpassed; offshore fringing reefs where the visibility is considerably better, and the coral much healthier; pinnacles and small rocky islands which rise from the depths and attract larger marine life such as sharks and rays; and banks which rise up from depths of over 300 meters and attract different types of marine life altogether. All in all, the Mergui Archipelago contains some of the most diverse and interesting marine ecosystems in the world.
Far inshore, the islands are lush with vegetation and primary jungle, and contain some of the last jungle cats and other large mammals to be found in Southeast Asia. For those who are interested in more than diving, jungle walks and river trips can and should be considered as part of your trip. Bird watchers and observers of terrestrial life will be thrilled.
Further offshore, the islands are drier and lay in deep enough water to afford good visibility. Here the corals, sea fans, and fish life are similar to that found in Thailand, but with much more diversity of species. This makes the diving better and more exciting than in the waters to the east or to the south.
Face to Face with Sharks
At least nine species of sharks have been reported in Burma, including bull, tiger, hammerhead, gray reef, nurse, mako, and one of the most beautiful sharks I’ve ever seen, the spinner shark: If you’re Australian, you’d call it a black whaler. At the Burma Banks, whitetip, tawny nurse, and silvertip sharks are the ones to watch for.
The sharks one sees inshore at the islands are different from the sharks at the banks of Burma, Gray reef sharks, powerful and beautiful and a little bit scary, are seen often in certain areas in certain years–not as often as we would like. Known to be aggressive in some waters around the world, in Burma they are shy and stay for the most part just on the edge of visibility. However, if the diver pays attention, he can often be rewarded with a close encounter, a thrilling experience.
Sharks are in serious threat around the world. Over 100 million animals are killed each year, mainly for their fins–a huge waste of food. Please do not purchase any shark products at any time. The health of the reef, and the enjoyment of seeing large animals is at stake. It’s not only about doing the right thing, it’s about your pleasure as well. And, your children’s pleasure. And my pleasure quick frankly.
Some of the more interesting dive sites in the archipelago are described below, taking a general south to north route. Keep in mind that these are just a few of the sites that you would visit on a cruise.
Western Rocky Island:
This limestone island features beautiful underwater terrain, including a tunnel–often full of large tawny nurse sharks–which traverses the island about 20-meters down. The island is more like a series of pinnacles rather than one big rock and the soft limestone makes for crevices offering shelter for a wide variety of sea creatures. Some of the marine life you will see here include mantas, gray reef and spinner sharks, and eagle rays in the open water next to the island, while leopard sharks and spotted rays lie on the bottom. On and around the rocks, spiny lobster, cowrie shells, feather stars, anemones and an assortment of crabs abound. Reef fish include blue-ringed angelfish, moray-eels, snappers, frogfish, and ghost pipefish.
Fan Forest Pinnacle:
This site is just a few miles north of Western Rocky. The pinnacle rises from a depth well beyond the limits of recreational divers, to about 5-meters below the surface. It features huge orange sea fans, black coral, and large barrel sponges. The potential for spotting larger fish is excellent, but even if you do not, the dive site is very dramatic and the fish life excellent, including groupers or potato cod at the deeper depths.
These diving areas were very popular in the 1990s for two reasons: One, we couldn’t visit the inshore areas of the archipelago as we didn’t gain permission until 1997. Two, we used to see a lot of sharks here. Not so any longer as many of them were fished out in the late 1990s. A real shame, but very few boats visit The Burma Banks any longer.
Not officially part of the Mergui Archipelago as there are no islands here, the Burma Banks, located about 80 nautical miles west of Kawthaung, are a series of seamounts that rise up from over 300-meters to just below the surface. Depths average 15-22 meters on the flat areas on top, dropping off slowly on the edges. Some banks have a more dramatic drop off than others, but nowhere will you find a vertical wall. Diving here requires careful planning, as the currents are often strong and unpredictable. Guided drift dives are the norm, usually starting on the edge of the bank in 35-meters of water where divers stare out in the blue looking for large silvertip sharks. Commonly growing to just over two-meters in length, these sharks are full-bodied, fascinating animals easily identified by the white trailing edges on their pectoral fins and caudal, or tail fins. Normally quite curious, but not aggressive, these sharks will closely approach the diver making for incredible photo opportunities. Unfortunately, we just don’t see as many as we used to. Other types of sharks are seen at the banks, including free-swimming nurse sharks, black tips, the occasional gray reef, and the very occasional tiger or hammerhead shark.
Since the sharks are not currently around, the dogtooth tuna, Spanish mackerel and jack fish that patrol the reef edges will delight you. The coral is in very good shape in many places, but this varies from year to year depending on storm activity and other environmental factors. Here you will find fish that you don’t find anywhere else in the Andaman Sea, like the rare Strickland’s triggerfish. You never know what you’re going to see out here.
Three Islets (Shark Cave Island)
One of the most extraordinary dive sites, these three rocks that rise out of the sea from depths of 40-meters or more harbors some of the best marine life in the archipelago. Huge schools of fusilier and silversides surround you upon entering the water. The sandy base of the islands reveals unusual anemones and starfish, while the walls are covered with orange cup corals, whip corals, and green tubastrea coral. It is one of the better areas to see harlequin shrimp and harlequin ghost pipe fish.
If you’re looking for drama, there is a canyon that leads to a tunnel connecting the northern and southern part of the main, middle island. Here, if you’re lucky, you can witness gray reef sharks swimming in and out of the canyon. The trick here is to hang out against the east side of the wall and just watch. As long as there are not too many divers in the canyon, the sharks will soon lose their shyness and swim very close to you. Up to 12 animals have been seen together.
North Twin Island
Although there are several interesting dive sites surrounding this island, the most beautiful area lies to the west, several hundred meters from the island itself. It’s almost a separate pinnacle rather than being part of the island. Here you will find large, colorful sea fans and beautiful soft corals that have attached themselves to the rocky substrate. It’s a very striking dive and generally the water is more clear here than on other sites in the south.
North Twin Plateau
Located just northwest of North Twin, this large plateau starts at around six-meters and carries on down to between 24 and 30-meters. It’s quite a large dive site, and it’s best to start in the deeper areas and find an interesting vein to explore as you move towards the surface. Lots of large sea fans make this look similar to many of the West Coast dives in the Similan Islands. The clear water helps this comparison. Barracuda and rainbow runners cruise the outer edges of the reef, and sandbar sharks have been sighted here.
Probably the most spectacular site with the most potential for big stuff in the archipelago, Black Rock is a rocky island approximately 100-meters long, located about 50-nautical miles north of North Twin Island. Here is the closest you’ll come to having a true wall dive, with depths to over 60-meters and a dramatic drop off in most areas. Although visibility can change dramatically here due to strong currents at certain times of the month, there is plenty to see here and many dives are possible on this one site. The currents can also make this an advanced dive, with up and down currents–not to mention the sideways ones–causing all kinds of fun and games for divers. Be careful of your depths, and try and stay close to the rock itself to duck out of the currents.
It’s best to start the dive in deeper waters, watching the currents, and keeping a look out for larger life including manta rays and their smaller cousins, mobula rays. Gray reef and other species of shark are seen here regularly. Whale sharks as well. If larger animals are sighted, it’s best to just hang out and wait for them to come around you. As you’ll be doing more than one dive here due to it’s remoteness, if you see large marine life, keep looking. Leave later dives for watching the smaller marine life that is the main attraction here.
Some of the fish you will see here include black-spotted pufferfish, spotted hawkfish, scorpionfish, and blue-ringed angelfish. If you are a moray eel fan, then this is your dive site. Many unusual and rarely seen morays are common, including extra-large common green, zebra, and fimbriated and white-eyed morays. Octopus and cuttlefish can be found here, the latter easy to photograph.
Little Explored Northern Mergui Archipelago
Moving north, we find dive sites that are not dived that often due to the distances involved. However, they are worth noting, as they will probably be dived more often in the future as the southern sites become more crowded.
Located off Northeast Little Torres Island, this island rises dramatically out of the sea and plunges over 60-meters to the bottom. Schools of mobula rays are seen here often. It’s also a good place to spot sharks, but the remarkable landscape and the chance of seeing ghost pipefish is the more reliable interest. There are over eight dive sites we’ve found in this area now.
Located almost 80 nautical miles north of Black Rock, the island looks almost exactly like Ko Bon in Thailand, just flipped 180¥. The best site is a pinnacle located almost in the middle of the small bay, and is almost connected to a ridge that runs from the westernmost point of the island. On dives we’ve done there, the top of the rock acts as a cleaning station for manta rays. It’s a huge granite rock starting about 15-meters and continuing to over 40-meters. From there, you’ll find a hard coral reef sloping down to over 60-meters. Large sea fans swathe the granite boulders, with purple, pink and orange soft corals covering most of the rock. Barracudas, fusiliers, jacks, Spanish mackerel, and rainbow runners cruise over the top of the reef. Painted crayfish hide in the overhangs. Visibility can be well over 30-meters here.
A small island with enough tree cover to keep a pair of sea eagles happy, it is located about four nautical miles east of West Canister. The island can easily be swam around in one dive, but here it’s important to slow down and look carefully, as the smaller marine life is what you should be enjoying. With usually clear water, the boulders with sea fans and soft corals make powerful topography, while the hard corals are healthy and colorful. Anemones and sea whips dot the terrain, and you’ll see various triggerfish, stonefish, scorpionfish, and tigertail seahorses.