The Famous "Burma Banks", Myanmar
Correcting a Common Misconception
The banks were first visited in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, this was the only place we were allowed to visit in Burma because the Banks lie in international waters (although the Myanmar Government claims economic rights). However, a couple of things happened to change our habit of visiting the banks. One, the Myanmar government, in 1997, granted us permission to dive in the islands closer to shore (there are hundreds of islands and rocks). Two, in the late 1990s, long-line fishermen and finning fishermen did a devastating job of killing almost all of the shark population of the Burma Banks. Although these days we occasionally get lucky and see sharks there, generally we do not and the conditions are such that it's a big risk to go. If we don't see any sharks, there are no dive sites near enough to get to, so we're forced to spend the entire day there. Quite honestly, most people don't like the type of diving at the banks unless they see sharks; the currents are vicious, the landscape uninteresting, and the average depth makes bottom times short.
Unfortunately, many dive magazines continue to report incorrectly even today that boats from Phuket visit the Burma Banks and they don't even mention the Mergui Archipelago. The Burma Banks are just one small part of the Mergui Archipelago. The name "Burma Banks" was created by dive shops and liveaboard operators, it's not an official name of anything.
The Burma Banks
The Burma Banks are a series of large underwater flat-topped sea-mounts that lie approximately 180 kilometers (100 nautical miles) northwest of the Similan Islands. The banks' surrounding water is over 350 meters deep and large areas rise to within the depth limits of recreational scuba diving. The name derives from the fact that this 1,500 square kilometer area lies within the exclusive economic zone of Burma. The banks offer some exciting, stimulating diving, but since this is true open-ocean diving, they certainly are not for everyone.
These mountains rise very gradually from the depths and are covered with hard coral growth and large patches of sand. Although the huge plate corals (some of these 'plates' could seat all the knights of the round table easily) are in many areas fantastic, that is not the reason for traveling so far out to sea. The reason is for different types of environments not found in Thailand or in the Mergui Archipelago proper.
These days, most boats are spending more time in the Mergui Archipelago proper (further inshore) than out at the banks for five reasons. First, the diving inshore is so good. Second, we tend to see more sharks like gray reef sharks inshore and not here at the banks. Third, the currents can get very strong out here, and novice divers have no business being here at all. Forth, there is no protection from any kind of weather. Fifth, the distances out to the banks are far, and often times not worth it. Your divemaster is going to be in the best position to make this decision. See the Mergui section for more information.
When you see sharks at the banks, the most common type of shark is the nurse shark that grows to over 3 meters in length. Where else can you go to see nurse sharks freely swimming nose-to-tail over the top of the reef, which have so little fear of divers that they sometimes accidentally swim harmlessly (for both parties) into us? They are truly the clowns of the banks as it is difficult not to laugh at their frenzied movements. Not enough? How about large silver tip sharks that when attracted by bait swim within range of your Nikonos 15 mm lens?
If the nurse sharks are the clowns, then the silver tips are the stars. Reaching an impressive length of two to three meters, these sharks-often compared to the Galapagos shark and easily identified by the white trailing edge on their pelvic, dorsal, and caudal fins-are full-bodied, serious predators.
In addition, you'll see larger reef fish than in other areas of Thailand, such as huge sweet lips and the occasional grouper. The most common diving technique at the banks are large drift dives over the mountain flats. Currents can be quite tricky here-sometimes changing in direction 90º to 180º very quickly-and very fast. It is common to drift over one kilometer on certain dives-assuming the current is taking you in the directly you originally planned! All dive operators that dive at the banks are strict with safety rules. Although these vary slightly from operator to operator, it is roughly agreed that all divers must dive with a 'safety sausage', a whistle or other signaling device, and that either the dingy or the larger vessel should follow the diver's bubbles on the surface. Finally, it is a must that buddy pairs stay together at all times, and in fact some operators insist that divers dive in a group of at least four. To become separated from your dive boat this far from land would surely spell disaster.
Sharks Hunted Down
Again, sharks are not as common as they once were in Mergui, at the Banks, in Thailand or anywhere in the world. They have been hunted mercilessly. They continue to be hunted, very few countries have put any kind of shark on any endangered species list and it may be too late to save the shark populations of our oceans. For more information, please visit this website and maybe you can do something to help.
Everyone wants to see big fish underwater, but with the uncontrolled fishing going on in the world today, it's getting more difficult every year to see big fish. If it's sitting on the grocery's shelves, it's not swimming at your favorite dive site.
About the Author
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.