|How often, returning from a dive trip, can you report that you tried several previously undived sites, with countless remaining to be explored In the Mergui Archipelago, even on those sites that have seen a couple of dozen divers, you can tell by the reaction of the fish life that you are more than usually alien to their environment.
This is also an area in which both elephants and rhinoceros have recently been sighted swimming between islands, so be prepared for the unexpected! On most sites here the density of coral growth and invertebrate life means that there is little room to rest a finger, but if you do, watch out that you dont choose a scorpionfish instead of the rock surface - they are present in vast numbers.
The macro life is stunning, and it is all too easy to become absorbed in a small patch of reef and miss what is happening around you, or in the open water off the reef.
Keeping an eye on the open water is essential to see what has come to investigate these strange, new noisy creatures on the reef. Sharks, large bull rays, eagle rays and dense shoals of fish can be expected on every dive, although sightings of the big creatures are sometimes fleeting, as they depart rapidly in a state of shock.
Yet this is not one of those new and untouched dive destinations so beloved of travel operators where convoluted flight connections and often an extended sea cruise are required to reach your idyll. This is an area that has been inaccessible since sport diving began, but is within reasonable travelling distance of an established tourist destination. The Mergui Archipelago lies off the southern coast of Burma, which opened its borders to a handful of licensed liveaboards only last summer. It offers the thrill of exploration and some truly untouched diving.
The archipelago comprises more than 800 islands. It stretches 200 miles north from the southern Burmese border with Thailand. The diving south of this area, in Thailands Surin and Similan islands,
is well-established and the potential of the Mergui islands has been apparent to local operators for some time.
The Burmese authorities are keen for cautious development of their tourist industry, and are struggling to achieve even that in the face of widespread international condemnation of their disregard for human rights. It was only after long and careful negotiations that licences were finally granted to one or two boats to explore the southern islands last spring. The quality of the diving was immediately apparent, and further negotiations secured permission for some boats to explore to the northern limits of the archipelago in October. Most of these islands are uninhabited, and until early this century were known only for their remoteness, selection of wild animals and potential for attack by pirates. The independence of Burma in 1948 brought with it isolationist policies and the closure of strategic areas, and this has preserved these islands and reefs until now.
The only people you are likely to encounter are the Moken, or sea gypsies, who have communities in the southern islands, and the occasional Burmese longtail fishing boat. These travel hair-raising distances offshore for such fragile craft.
There are two options for travelling to the islands, both surprisingly easy, but one is definitely more adventurous. Most of the liveaboards operating here sail from Phuket in Thailand, and offer the southern Mergui islands as an extension to a cruise to the Surin and Similan islands. Only one operator currently bases these vessels in Burmese waters exclusively, and this means entering Burma aboard longtail fishing boats across the border on the Patchak river between Kawthoung and Ranong in Thailand. From here you either join your boat directly to sail north, or fly north to the port of Mergui to sail south back to Kawthoung.
You later re-enter Thailand the same way, having enjoyed not only the diving but also the experience of visiting one or both of these fascinating ports. Mergui is steeped in history and for centuries was a vital trade link between India and China and Japan. Goods were transported inland by river and continued the journey by elephant train to the Gulf of Siam, where they rejoined shipping to continue east.
The fact that the port of Mergui was closed even to most Burmese people until last year gives you some idea of the fascination that visiting westerners provide!
The sunrise over the first island anchorage reveals soaring hills capped by dense rainforest, fringed by white sandy beaches innocent of tourist footprints.
These islands are still wild in the truest sense, inhabited by elephants, black bears, rhinos, monkeys, sea eagles, brahminy kites and hornbills, any number of snakes and insects and even leopards and tigers. A walk on the beach early in the morning reveals hermit and land crabs scuttling in all directions, cat paw prints larger than your hand, and a chance to meet some very large wild boar.
Visiting this area can be quite an adventure and one of the operators offers a mixture of island exploration and diving in addition to its dedicated diving cruises. If you choose this option, dont forget your jungle boots and insect repellent!
The topside island charms extend into these nutrient-rich waters, which offer a dazzling diversity of flora and fauna from mantis shrimps to mantas and whale sharks.
The topography and coral formations are similar to those found further south in Thailand, but you have that distinct impression that yours are among the first human eyes to view these reefs. Early plankton blooms throughout South-east Asia, courtesy of El Nino, resulted in variable visibility during my visit, though the profusion of reef and fish life still shone through, and the sites we visited are easily the equal of big-name sites further south.
On Western Rocky Island, you can follow the sheer sides of three large surface-breaking peaks down to about 25m before they slope gently away to 35m and more. Our descent took us into a dense shoal of silversides that were reluctant to part, so the appearance of the reef came as something of a surprise ! The dive at North Twin Island starts on top of two submerged pinnacles rising to within 4m of the surface, 200m north of the main island. There is a plateau at 20m before a further drop to 40m plus. Many hard and soft corals vie for space on the rock surface, and large sea-fans reach out into the current. Schools of reef fish and dense shoals of sweepers fight for your attention, and you also need to watch the edge of the reef for quick visits from whitetip reef sharks, shoals of jacks and large barracuda.
Sea-fans and soft corals cover a rock surface split by deep fissures and gullies. One of these leads into a large cave system that can be relied on to host sleeping nurse sharks. These will largely ignore your intrusion; but, while you watch, listen for the serenade of hundreds of clicking and scratching spiny lobsters that line the entire roof of the cave. Burma Banks is a plateau area some 80 miles off the Burmese coast that rises from 200m or so to 15-18m. The coral formations here are not spectacular, comprising small bommies and outcrops, but the location is famed for encounters with sharks and other big pelagics in sometimes very strong currents.
Surface sightings of pods of dolphins and a passing school of pilot whales increased our anticipation as we prepared to dive.
The visibility during our visit was a misty 10-15m, so it was often a surprise to find groups of two or three silvertip sharks up to 3m long swooping in from the deep to investigate the noise of our bubbles. Big fish life is also abundant here - we lunched on huge tuna steaks that just an hour or so before had been swimming around the boat!
The macro life here, as with many of the sites, is particularly lush. Looking closely at feather stars and urchins will reveal a surprising number of house guests.
The sites at Great Swinton Island are once again centred on large surface-breaking rocks offshore, the best area being around Jouseya Cave. Jouseya is Burmese for spooky and the entrance, down a dark 18m gully with the certainty of finding whitetip, blacktip and nurse sharks, certainly builds the apprehension. The sharks all want to exit quickly when disturbed, which provides a few exciting moments as both sharks and divers wonder which are the more surprised.
The surrounding reef is particularly rich, with colourful soft and hard corals, gardens of purple and green carpet anemones (many host to the pretty porcelain crabs), large shoals of jacks and barracuda and, on my visit, several pairs of mating giant cuttlefish and octopus.
Another formation off Great Swinton Island popped up on the echo-sounder during my visit, so we decided to dive it. It turned out to be two pinnacles close together and rising from 30-35m to within 3m of the surface.
A fantastic array of sea-fans and soft corals awaited us, with bull rays and barracuda patrolling the gap between the two rocks. Different species of nudibranch seemed to occur every metre or so, while pixie hawkfish and blennies fought for our attention.
The site was voted a winner, with a perfect profile for the end of a diving day, and we named it temporarily Mini Richleau because of its similarity to the famous site in Thai waters further south.
One of the most spectacular dives offered by the area is the isolated surface-breaking pinnacle known as Black Rock. Sheer walls drop from the surface to 50-60m on one side, while the other offers ledges every 10-15m before bottoming out at 40m. There is a lot of big life here, with fast visits from large silvertip and blacktip sharks, bull rays patrolling the ledges, jacks and barracuda. The colourful sedentary life fights for space on the rock walls.
Currents can be strong but there is always a lee side, allowing plenty of scope for a deep excursion followed by a gentle ascent, and plenty to watch in the shallows as you make a safety stop and finish your air. After an early-morning dive here we relaxed over breakfast and watched the topside predators - a pair of large fish eagles nesting on top of the rock and making spectacular repeated catches in front of the boat to feed their hungry chicks.
North-east Little Torres Island boasts plateaus at 5-10m intervals, descending from two surfacing-breaking pinnacles to maximum depths of 35-40m. Sea-fans and sea-whips do-minate the deeper scenery here, while bull sharks and silvertips patrol close to the bottom.
Shoaling batfish, triggerfish and parrotfish graze over brain, plate and staghorn corals in the shallows. What sticks in my mind is the large black-and-grey-striped seasnake that calmly passed between my legs while I concentrated on a small fringe-head blenny !
Great Western Torres Island has a beautiful beach on its northern shore. This provides an attractive backdrop to the two offshore pinnacles that identify the dive site. We saw no sharks here but the reef is carpeted in soft corals and anemones to 20m or so, where large white sea-fans decorated with feather-stars take over as the ledges continue to 40m.
Lots of octopus and spiny lobsters were to be found here, and many juvenile shoals, including one of tiny barracuda that hung in the gentle current close to the surface, snapping at passing plankton. McCarthy Island and Stewart Island lie close together and offer similar dives. We experienced the strongest currents of the trip here, but the topography provides shelter after a quick trip down one side of the reef. Schools of squid, sweetlips, red snappers and pairs of moorish idols cruise the reef, along with perhaps the greatest number of bearded scorpionfish I had spotted on any dive - I stopped counting at 40!
After riding the current I surfaced on the wrong side of the island, out of sight of the boat and drifting gently away. For a few minutes I was reminded of just how remote this area is. Drifting offshore would probably result in an unscheduled visit to the Andaman Islands - if I was lucky. Fortunately our skipper was monitoring the currents closely and appeared around the headland before these thoughts become more than idle musings! No doubt the Burmese authorities will slowly develop their own diving tourism - at present each boat visiting the area carries a representative of the Burmese Tourist Authority, and three of the southern islands, Lampi, Selon and Tavoy, have already been selected for limited resort development.
GETTING THERE Thai Airways International flies direct to Bangkok with connections to Phuket or Ranong (0171 491 7953). Most of the major airlines have routes to Bangkok with connections en route. There are bargains to be found if you dont mind lengthy connections. Try Trailfinders (0171 938 3366
DIVING SAFETY:There are recompression chambers in Phuket (Patong Beach) and Bangkok. Funded by the local dive centres, they will treat a casualty even if not insured. All boats carry oxygen and normally restrict diving depths to 40m. Divers should be experienced, and bring a safety sausage and strobe flasher - currents can be strong and the Andaman sea is a big place!
ACCOMMODATIONDont miss the opportunity to sample Thai accommodation - it can be very cheap and the sterling/baht exchange rate is excellent at present.
Conditions: The north-east monsoon between October and May presents the best diving conditions, with mostly calm seas and water temperatures of 28C. Plankton blooms are likely from March to May (manta and whale-shark season) although it came early this year thanks to El Nino. Adventure trips to the southern Mergui islands are available all year round.
OPERATORSMark Webster dived at the start of the year courtesy of South-east Asia Liveaboards, the only operator then basing its boats in Burmese waters and diving the northern reaches of the archipelago. It has SY Crescent, an 18m ketch taking 10 passengers on dedicated diving cruises, and the Gaea, a 15m trimaran taking a maximum of eight on adventure safaris with some diving (tel: 0066 76 340406, fax 340586, or book through Hayes and Jarvis on 0181 748 5050 in the UK). Several other operators now offer trips to the Mergui Archipelago, with prices ranging from $1000 to $2500 for 5-9 days. Fantasea Divers offers the 30m mv Fantasea, which accommodates 15 in seven cabins, and the 18m Colona II, which takes six. Both undertake excursions to the south of the archipelago (tel. 0066 76 340088, fax. 340309). Colona II can be booked through Dive and Sail (01452 740919). Divemaster runs five-day cruises on the 25m mv Divemaster for eight, with excursions to the southern Mergui islands and Burma Banks (tel. 0066 2 93 84216/7, fax 84218). And Dive Asia Pacific offers a Mergui excursion during nine-day trips to the Similan islands on the 21m Sai Mai, and the 35m Pelagian, which take eight and 12 divers respectively (tel. 0066 76 263732, fax 263733 or Scuba Safaris on 01797 270910).
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