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 800 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, 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 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.
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 invariably disappointed.
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 is 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 Burma Banks. Gray reef sharks, powerful and beautiful and a little bit scary, are seen often. 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. 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 liveaboard cruise.
Mergui Archipelago Dive Sites
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.
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.
Onwards and upwards
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.
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.
The Mergui Archipelago has something for everyone, and although the dive sites here can often learn towards the advanced, even intermediate divers will love the place as long as the dive sites are picked carefully.
As always, consult with the divemaster before diving to make sure you aren't getting more than you bargained for.
Conditions change constantly due to fluctuating tides and your dive professional is the best source of current information.
The first wave of divers report encountering beautiful coral gardens, with visibility exceeding 30 meters, lots of sharks, rays, and large schools of pelagic fish. With a colorful history of maritime trade and piracy, the waters surrounding these forgotten islands are believed to conceal hundreds of shipwrecks and other valuable historical artifacts. You'll be hearing a lot more about Mergui in the next few years.