It’s as accessible as the diving in Thailand but home to a much healthier and greater biodiversity of corals, crustaceans, nudibranchs and fish, yet only a handful of liveaboards explore the diving on offer in Myanmar. This meant that on our trip, we didn’t see any other divers underwater, or even another dive boat for all five days we were there. I haven’t found many places within such easy reach that make it possible to get away from the crowds and experience a genuine feeling of adventure – exploring rarely dived and unspoiled sites.
Limestone geology means dive sites are covered in healthy corals and riddled with caverns and dramatic swim-throughs. Add to this seasonal mantas and whale sharks and you have a recipe for exciting dives and impressive wide-angle photo opportunities. My camera’s lust for interesting macro subjects was also satisfied: harlequin shrimps, frogfish and even regionally-rare waspfish and velvetfish. A large variety of nudibranchs, rare sponge snails, bubble shells, as well as pipefish and Pegasus seamoths came out to play as well.
Welcome to the marvellous Mergui.
If fortune favours, this site can bring world-class encounters with oceanic mantas and maybe even whale sharks. If the big boys and girls don’t show, there is a resident school of eagle rays and a few shy whitetip reef sharks to seek out, as well as an impressive colony of anemones and frequent gatherings of mating cuttlefish. The visibility and water temperature can be unpredictable here, from five to 30 metres and anywhere between 24 and 29 degrees. Wrap up warm!
Western Rocky Island, Crayfish Cave
Descending on the southwestern corner of the main rock, we were led to a mighty arch at 20 to 22 metres. Swimming around and then back through the arch gave some impressive views and great wideangle photo opportunities. A school of fusiliers and a school of juvenile yellow tail barracuda were hanging out beyond the arch and a small school of yellow snapper was lurking just inside. Heading east we came to the mouth of a large cave with an impressively high ceiling and a floor made up of thousands of fallen clamshells. It’s dark in there, and I was glad of my torch. Two faint glows mark the exit. I took the exit to the right – the other is too small to pass through – and on the way out, spotted three painted crayfish lobsters on the wall of the cave – a crayfish cave, indeed!
On the way up to the boat, I found a couple of pairs of harlequin shrimp enjoying their starfish dinner. Each time we dived this site we were treated to something special – eagle rays, oceanic mantas and, on one dive, a glimpse of a whale shark!
This was one of the most beautiful dive sites I have seen on this side of the Malay Peninsula. So much colour! The site is almost entirely pink, yellow and orange, covered by an incredible blanket of soft tree and broccoli corals as wells as fan, whip, and harp corals. Anything that isn’t covered in soft corals is covered in pink and yellow Tubastraea corals and feather stars. It’s a beautiful backdrop to the clouds of basslets and fusiliers sheltering and feeding here. We came across a small group of sweetlips seeking shelter amongst the fans, and, on the channel floor, we found multiple bent stick pipefish and a handful of nice nudibranchs. An incredibly memorable and photogenic dive.
Three Islets, In Through The Out Door
This is a wonderfully moody dive that gets its name from its structure: It is an impressive canyon leading to two adventurous swim-throughs that allow you to pass from one side of a small islet to the other.
Descending on the northwest corner of the middle islet, we followed the wall on our right. This led us to a narrowing canyon. There was swell on the surface, channelled by the canyon; timing our breathing and finning, we rode the surge all the way through. The wall becomes an overhang and in the shade, yellow sponges cover the rocky bottom. There is a large swim-through made by a boulder resting up against the wall. A couple of huge marble rays were resting on the bottom. They were impressively big.
We exited the canyon by passing through a large, narrow cavern that opens up on the eastern side of the island. Heading north we spotted a nurse shark sleeping between the boulders. The dive kept on treating us to interesting encounters: We found groups of large lionfish hunting and too many bearded scorpionfish to count, a couple of false stonefish and moray eels. In the shallows, the corals were healthy and abundant.
At just after seven in the morning, we dropped in on the western side of the island, right next to a massive, imposing arch, through which the rising sun was blazing – perfectly framed. What a way to start a dive! We descended towards the bouldercovered slope running down to the sand at about 25 metres.
As we hit the bottom, out of nowhere, we were buzzed by large schools of beefy jacks and rainbow runners, taking us completely by surprise. They disappeared into the blue just as quickly and unexpectedly as they had appeared. As we headed along the edge of the reef, we came across a large Jenkins whip ray, resting on the substrate. Moving up to 18 metres or so, we entered a swim-through that opened out into a large bowl on the opposite side of the island. The site is criss-crossed by these dramatic fissures, which means lots of things of interest to see, and a whole variety of ways to dive it. Continuing south we took a second swim-through back out to the western side, and finished our dive in the shallows.
With this just a small selection of the dramatic diving on offer in the marvellous Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar is sure to be the next big destination on everyone’s bucket list.
This article featured Scuba Diver AUSTRALASIA (Issue 7/2014)