Freddie Storheil was one of the first pioneers who offered live-aboard diving holidays in the Red Sea. A Norwegian who had sailed his British-built ketch Colona II round the world a couple of times, he based himself in Sharm el Sheikh together with another boat, a motor yacht called, appropriately, Colona III.
When Freddie lost Colona III through a fire on board, he got himself another motor yacht, Colona IV.
The live-aboard boat business certainly has its ups and downs, and when Freddie suffered the financial disaster of the loss of Colona IV in a freak storm outside Hurghada, he decided to decamp and set up anew in what was Indo-China.
Burma (or Myanmar as it is also known) has only recently opened its doors to tourism. Freddie, with Colona II, is one of the first on the scene around the Mergui islands and this is indicated by the fact that some of the locations have names like Colona Rocks and Freddies Passage. And yes, we all ventured up Freddies Passage during the course of the weeks trip!

Colona II is a sailing yacht. We dived and sailed. However, accommodation within the skinny dimensions of such a vessel are not the same as on a broad-beamed motor vessel of the same length. One of the passengers expressed disappointment but I explained that if he wanted a lot of space below decks he would have to book with Dr Who and the Tardis next time!
That said, six passengers and six crew were able to travel without too much discomfort and we soon learned to be economic with the space available.
The Burmese chef turned out excellent and varied meals from a tiny galley, with supplies that came from Phuket. These supplies were augmented by whatever was unlucky enough to take the bait we trawled between dive sites.
Freddie has been in this business for a very long time and Colona II has been well thought out to combine the requirements of diving within the limitations of a sailing vessel. For example, the compressors occupy a space below deck right up at the sharp end and a high-pressure line is fed to diving cylinders where they are secured ready for use at the aft deck.
The entry point for divers is quite high off the water and access back is via a ladder at the stern. Freddie has an inflatable for use as a pick-up boat, but his skill in handling the yacht meant that he was able to pick us up directly every time while I was there.
Burma seems to be a place trapped in the immediate post-WWII era. Apart from spectacular Buddhist temples and political statues, all finished in the same blaze of gold, Kaw Thaung - where the boat sails from - is an inauspicious port, busy with many wooden long-tailed boats.
Their method of propulsion is a small diesel engine equipped with a propeller on the end of a long shaft, which is positioned by the boats driver in the water. Few of these engines seem equipped with any means of cooling and none have silencers. It makes Kaw Thaung a very noisy place.
The Mergui Islands in the Andaman Sea are inhabited by the Moken people. They are the sea-gypsies and use a similar means of transport to the town-dwellers of Kaw Thaung. It is ironic to see one of these boats motoring through what could be described as a natural paradise with the helmsman surrounded by a dense black cloud of diesel fumes.
Whole families, usually including many children, live in these cramped little boats. Freddie makes a point of taking sweets, biscuits and canned drinks to any sea-gipsy children that cross Colona IIs path.
The beaches of the Mergui islands were idyllic. We walked on white sand which had no footprints save for those of crabs and the occasional wild pig. I kept an eye out for the odd Burmese python in the trees and admired the ariel skills of the white-bellied sea eagle.
It crossed my mind that this might be one of the last chances to see these islands in an untouched state. How long will it be before holiday bungalows and hotels spring up along their pristine shores They simply invite the investment of the tourism industry.

So what about the diving
There are many big and muddy rivers that discharge into the sea around Myanmar, including the many mouths of the Irrawaddy. On top of this the lush rain-forests of the Mergui islands are a result of a heavy monsoon season. The calm peaceful waters within the archipelago suffer from the run-off and visibility can be limited.
The underwater terrain is mainly boulders and rocky outcrops smothered with soft pink corals that benefit from the strong currents caused as the tide flows around the islands. There is a fairly large rise and fall of water and it could be said that it is not really a place for novice divers or those who dont like to work hard with their fins.
Many of the rocks are smothered in crinoids such as feather-stars - which could almost be renamed the corals of the Mergui. Some of these feather-stars can be seen moving quite swiftly and even dropping from rock faces to relocate on lower surfaces. On more than one occasion I found myself inadvertently adorned with a feather-star that had been swept by and settled on me while I was stationary taking a photograph.
Gorgonia flourish well in currents, and in places there are mountains of what look like giant cockscomb oyster shells, and extensive mats of anemones.
Often thought of as rather sedentary animals, long-spined sea urchins can also be seen hurrying around and several of us gained difficult-to-remove trophies when we made contact with their sharp spines, which had not been there a few moments before. Plenty of vinegar followed by a coating of oil seemed to be the solution.
There were lots of sharks. These were mainly whitetip reef , grey reef, and nurse sharks. Because of the currents, it was often possible to come across groups of them sleeping under overhangs and in caves. The same went for sting rays.
At Colona rocks we visited the regularly occupied sleeping accommodation of a bundle of nurse sharks, in a somewhat awkward-to-enter cave. Outside we swam through an armada of squid and saw an enormous octopus and some cuttlefish.
Because of the visibility, I fear that the Mergui Islands will never become a popular place for underwater photographers and suggest that if you bring a camera you make sure you are equipped for a multitude of macro subjects.
The water is gin clear once you get away to offshore sites such as Black Rock. This is a lonely place with a terrain of boulders and steep walls. I saw many sharks, moray eels, several different kinds of pufferfish, cuttlefish and enormous lobsters. I have to admit that there are a couple of lobsters fewer than before our visit but they were so big, two were enough.
Even further away from the Mergui Islands are the Burma Banks, a location well known for encounters with whale sharks and mantas.
What did I think of the location as a whole Great sailing and exciting diving with lots of life, but no pretty corals and limited visibility. Freddie has certainly found a tropical island paradise but as he said: We dont get many underwater photographers out here!
  • John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Oonasdivers (01323 648924). An eight-day trip including flights, live-aboard accommodation and diving aboard Colona II costs around£1380. Visas, permits and canned drinks are not included.

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