Thursday, 15 Nov 2018

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

Thailand—specifically the west coast of Thailand and the Andaman Sea—is a recognized dive destination. Scuba enthusiasts are quite familiar with the lures of the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock, among other venues. The waters of the Andaman Sea off peninsular Thailand’s northwestern neighbor Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) offer many of the same attractions, with one difference. “Put simply, Myanmar is not overrun with visitors,” Ingo Siewert began. “I love the Similans, but at many of the sites there you might be moored with ten other boats. In Myanmar, you have the same quality of diving, and you usually have places to yourself. For live-aboards departing from greater Phuket, a place like the Mergui Archipelago is quite easy to reach. Overall, I think it’s a better dive value.”

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 1

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

The Mergui Archipelago consists of some 800 islands off the southern coast of Myanmar, stretching north from the Thai border nearly 200 miles and encompassing over 14,000 square miles of marine territory—much of it unexplored. The islands—blanketed with a mix of rainforest, mangroves, and white sand beaches—are largely untouched by the imprint of humankind. This is due in part to the island’s isolation from both Thai and Myanmar population centers, and in part to politics. After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948, (then) Burma closed its doors (and waters) to outsiders. Fast-forward nearly fifty years. Recognizing the potential of an area called the Burma Banks (a series of sea mounts roughly one hundred miles northwest of the Similans, well regarded for shark encounters)—and perhaps anticipating the potential for crowding in Thai waters as more Westerners discovered their appeals—several Phuket dive operators began negotiations with the Myanmar government. Initially, they hoped to gain access just to the banks. Their first forays found little success, but in 1997 visitors were permitted (for a fee) to visit not only Burma Banks, but the inshore areas of the Mergui Archipelago.

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 2

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

The underwater environs around Mergui Archipelago are every bit as interesting as the terrain above. There are inland reefs that offer incredible species diversity; offshore reefs that offer better visibility and more robust coral; and pinnacles, which have the potential to attract large pelagics. Divers seeking everchanging underwater topography will not be disappointed here! One promise the waters of the Mergui may not always be able to deliver on is big animals. “When I first started traveling up to Myanmar, many people went in hopes of seeing sharks,” Ingo continued. “While there’s always a good chance of seeing mantas, reef sharks, even whale sharks, the smaller fish and invertebrate life are much more prevalent. This—and the sense of adventure that’s still very real here—are the main reasons to visit Mergui. I encourage visitors to embrace the diversity of marine life, whether it be reef fish or macro creatures. The macro life is amazing in these parts.” (This being said, some nine species of shark have been recorded around Mergui, including bull, tiger, hammerhead, gray reef, nurse, mako, and spinner sharks.)

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 3

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

It’s likely to be some years before all the possibilities of Mergui are mapped out by dive operators. Nonetheless, in the ten years that the archipelago has been explored, a number of superlative sites have been identified. Fan Forest Pinnacle, near the Thai border, is blanketed—as its name might imply—with sea fans, exceptional for their size and vibrant orange hue. The pinnacle rises from tremendous depths, so the potential for spotting large pelagics is good. Another celebrated site is Shark Cave (sometimes called Three Islets), which is a bit farther north near Great Swinton Island. The cave in question is home to nurse sharks, and gray reef sharks (and more rarely, white-tip reef sharks) are sometimes encountered in the tunnel leading into the cave. Though sharks gave this venue its name, visitors who take the time may remember it more for the macro life present on the surrounding reefs. Harlequin ghost pipefish, tigertail sea horses, mantis shrimp, and cuttlefish are regularly witnessed here; there are also brilliantly colored anemones.

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 4

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

Black Rock, perhaps the most celebrated of Mergui sites, lies farther to the north, toward the center of the archipelago. A complex mix of currents make the dives here challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Black Rock affords Mergui visitors the best opportunity for encounters with larger rays and sharks. “On one dive at Black Rock,” Ingo recalled, “we came upon a whale shark cruising among a group of mantas. I wanted to tell the other divers that we may as well leave, because it wasn’t going to get any better than that. Then the next day, we had a dozen manta rays around us in a very concentrated space!” Mobula and eagle rays, white-tip, silver-tip, and black-tip sharks are also seen here. Even at Black Rock, one must remember the Mergui mantra: Don’t forget the small stuff! Black-spotted puffer-fish, spotted hawkfish, scorpion fish, and blue-ringed angelfish are regulars here.

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 5

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

When he was leading divers around the Mergui Archipelago, Ingo enjoyed exploring the islands above water. “The bird life is very rich on these islands, and worth experiencing,” he said. “If the group I was leading was laid-back and didn’t want to dive every available opportunity, we might do some canoeing in the mangroves. The islands are almost completely uninhabited, though on occasion we might run into the Sea Gypsies.” The Myanmar Sea Gypsies, also known as Salons, are members of the Moken ethnic group of Myanmar and Thailand, and sustain themselves hunting and gathering the riches of the sea. “The Sea Gypsies live on longtail boats with thatched roofs, much like they did 300 years ago,” Ingo added.

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 6

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

There’s one other bonus to diving in the Mergui Archipelago—to get back to Phuket, you have to motor in close proximity to Richelieu Rock, the Similans, and many of the other signature spots of Thai scuba. If you allow enough time on your Andaman adventure, you can enjoy both.

INGO SIEWERT works with Dive the World (www.dive-the-world.com) as a member of the sales team. He has been diving the Asia Pacific region for many years, and served as a dive-master and cruise director on live-aboard boats in Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia since 1999. Ingo lives in Phuket, Thailand, with his wife and two children.

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar - photo 7

Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar

IF YOU GO TO MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO:

Getting to Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar: The live-aboards that serve the Mergui Archipelago generally depart from Phuket, Khao Lak, or Ranong (the latter two towns north of Phuket). The island of Phuket can be reached via Bangkok on a number of international carriers, including Japan, Malaysia, Northwest, and United Airlines.

Best Time to Visit Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar: The diving season in Myanmar is October to May, with the latter part of the season yielding the most manta and whale shark sightings.

Accommodations Mergui Archipelago. Myanmar: Ingo recommends the live-aboards MV Sai Mai and MV Faah Yai. Dive the World (+66 83-505-7794; www.dive-the-world.com) highlights these and other live-aboard options.

 

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

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