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    ~ Diving the fabulous Mergui Archipelago ~

    Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago Liveaboard Diving

    Myanmar Liveaboards visit the fabulous, nearly undiscovered, Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma. The Mergui Archipelago diving season is November to April each year when the northeast winds are balmy and mild. The area generally closes from May until November due to unpredictable and sudden harsh weather.

    Where is the Mergui Archipelago?

    The Mergui Archipelago is known historically as the area west of the Tenasserim Hills, the southernmost part of the Himalayan Range. This range runs the border with Thailand. Once part of the Kingdom of Siam, it came under British rule in the 19th Century and since WW2 it has been part of the independent country of Myanmar. (You can call it Burma. These names are interchangeable.) The Tanintharyi Region or the Mergui Archipelago (Myeik Archipelago) is some 1,600 kilometers long and contains hundreds of islands, rocks and pinnacles. It is a paradise for divers and yachtsmen and one of the last underpopulated tropical archipelagos in the world.

    Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago

    The Mergui Archipelago as we know it today stretches between the southern Burmese towns of Kawthaung (Victoria Point) and Myeik Township (Mergui). Kawthaung is our jumping off point for boats and yachts to explore the islands. Most diving and sailing itineraries do not go as far as Mergui as it’s more than 200 nautical miles between the two.

    The best way to explore and dive Mergui is by liveaboard dive boat. Yes, there are small resorts open and more planning to open, but the distances are just too great to get people from point A to point B efficiently and easily. No, it’s much better to climb aboard a comfortable Liveaboard and go where you want, dive where you want, and sleep where you want. When you have hundreds and hundreds of islands, why visit just one?

    The calm, warm waters average 28ºC year-round. Visibility varies from average to excellent. It contains abundant marine life inshore and offshore. We dive both areas for variety. The offshore areas offer good visibility, what you would expect from a tropical dive. But the inshore areas have nutrient-rich water and thus explode with marine life. It is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Indian Ocean if not the world. You will see marine life in the Mergui Archipelago that you will see nowhere else.

    Getting Here

    Most of the dive boats leave from Thailand from the ports north of Phuket or Ranong on the Burmese border. There are daily flights from Bangkok to Ranong (DMK-RNG). There are dozens of daily flights into Phuket International Airport (HKT) from all over the world. Phuket is one of the most popular destinations anywhere, for good reason, and is a great jumping off point to magical places such as Burma.  

    Infrastructure in Myanmar is still far behind Thailand’s. It’s easier and cheaper to join a dive boat from Thailand. There is a license system for entering the Mergui Archipelago involving a fee paid by joining guests and a separate licensing system for boat owners. Some boats will allow you to fly to Kawthaung and board the vessel there. This, however, is generally not recommended due to erratic flight schedules and the lack of decent hotels. It’s much easier to enter via Thailand.

    Mergui Visa Requirements

    A visa is generally not required to enter Mergui by boat, but if you want to stay in Burma before or after your cruise, you will need a visa. e-Visas are easily done online. Where you board the boat will depend on the boat’s itinerary and the current immigration procedures. Boats have been entering the archipelago this way since 1997 and the system works well.

    Mergui Entry Requirements

    For Mergui entry please prepare and bring with you the following: 
    1) Copy of the picture page of your passport.
    2) Two passport pictures (nothing formal, just two head shots.)
    3) $230 – $350 USD in cash only, no other currency is accepted by the nice Burmese.
    *This amount varies by boat, please contact us and we will let you know the correct amount before you travel.
    *Upon booking, please send us a copy of your passport.

    Myanmar Mergui’s Archipelago Liveaboards

    BOATS

    Popular Mergui Archipelago Dive Sites

    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.

     

    (Difficulty Level: Easy)

     

    This large barren rock lying in the middle of nowhere in the central archipelago is considered to be the highlight of any trip and generally the furthest north most boats visit. The surrounding water is deeper than in the rest of the archipelago, attracting pelagic fish. Black Rock is famous as a cleaning station for oceanic manta rays.   The mantas come through to be cleaned by cleaner fish, hang around the rock for a day or two and then move along to parts unknown (though some are being tagged and tracked now.) They come within a few centimeters of divers and interact with us.

     

    The rock also attracts schooling fish, including several species of jacks and fusiliers while dense schools of glassfish hover over the coral heads.   Game fish circle the rock. The soft and hard corals are healthy and vibrant, and the visibility is normally excellent. Reef life is typical of the Andaman Sea, lionfish, scorpionfish, anemones and anemonefish, octopus, cuttlefish, stonefish, moray eels–all are very common on this rock and in the rest of the archipelago. Among other moray species seen regularly are jeweled, zebra, fimbriated and white-eyed, the latter two of which are sometimes seen snuggling together in the same crevice.

     

    Boats usually spend a full day here or longer as there are no other dive sites close by. Conditions change with the tides so each dive is unique. When the dive site is happening, it’s really happening and is one of the best dives anywhere.

    Also called Shark Cave or In Through the Out Door *Difficulty Level: Easy

     

    This is probably the most famous dive site in Mergui. As the name suggests, there are three different rocky islets rising out of the sea. The large “brother” Shark Cave, has a canyon which transects the island via a short swim through. You begin in a protected lagoon watching schooling fish and sponge encrusted rock and as you move towards the edge of the lagoon, a cavern will become visible. Below you is another small swim through which often contains a nurse shark or large ray. Ahead you will see the other side of the island so just watch the surge and kick when the current is with you. Shooting through the hole you will emerge into the light to find a garden of soft corals, anemones, colorful crinoids, and hard corals growing over rocks. This is a wonderful place to search for ghost pipefish and to photograph your favorite anemone fish. From there you may swim around along the healthy ridge to where you began, swim towards Middle Brother to the south, or circumnavigate all of Shark Cave Islet. Your routes are governed by current strength and direction.

     

    Middle Brother can be dived separately or together with Shark Cave. There is a short channel that separates the two sites and if the current is mild, it’s easy to stay along the bottom and swim between the two. Most days the visibility is good enough to see across the sand towards the other site. Middle Brother is visible from the surface and underwater has a wall covered in soft corals and then a ridge descending into the depths with several interesting crevasses and canyons full of color. You may follow the ridge down to depth or swim inside to the amphitheater-shaped reef where schooling reef fish congregate.

     

    Little Brother lies towards the open sea and although it appears small on the surface, underwater you’ll find many rocks and pinnacles as you swim towards Shark Cave. Depending on currents, this dive can be easy or more challenging. It’s best to follow your dive guide as they will find the best way to negotiate the currents as they flow around the submerged rocks. The water teams with schools of fusilier, jacks, and barracuda all feeding on the plankton brought in by the current. If the current is slack, you’ll spend the dive searching for ghost pipefish, tigertail seahorse, nudibranchs and frogfish. The pinnacle is teeming with life.

    Difficulty Level: Medium

     

    Elephant’s Kiss, and Rainbow Rock are the 2 main dive sites in the central area of the archipelago. These are considered inshore dive sites and the water is full of plankton and algae making for a very healthy marine environment. Although visibility is not as good here as in other places, it’s worth spending a day or two exploring, especially if you enjoy seeing critters and macro. This is the critter and soft coral capital of Mergui.   All the dive sites here are bathed with currents which are often very strong (depending on tidal flow.) The soft limestone rocks are littered with canyons, caverns and pinnacles which make for lots of hiding places for marine life. The soft corals really shine here and show especially vibrant oranges, yellows, pinks and purples. Candy Canyon and Rainbow Rock are named because of this rainbow of color.

     

    There are quite a few dive sites in this area. Over the years some have gotten better and some have declined so it’s always an exploratory journey during the days we are here. If currents are very strong, we’ll dive in areas where we can drift. If currents are mild we can jump on dive sites which have swim-throughs and interesting underwater topography.   Nudibranch geeks go nuts in this area especially if they venture out into the sandy areas surrounding the reefs. It seems we always see something new here. Invertebrates are well represented with shellfish, feather stars, hermit crabs, tube anemones, burrowing sea cucumbers, sea stars, and dozens of types of shrimp and crab.

     

    (Difficulty Level: Medium)

     

    Fan Forest is located exactly five nautical miles north of Western Rocky and away from all other islands. It’s best dived on a rising tide. The pinnacle rises from 60+ meters up to five meters below the surface. The dive requires a live entry where the captain will position you over the dive site and when you jump in, you swim down to the pinnacle, then stop and check the current. It’s best to swim into the current and over the side of the dive site then swim around and end the dive down current. The boat will pick you up on the surface away from the pinnacle. A surface marker buoy is essential here.

     

    Underwater you find a huge rock shaped like a pyramid. Part of the rock drops straight down to depth while other areas step down in stages with sand banks forming steps at 15, 30 and 45 meters. In the sand we look for leopard sharks and rays and on the walls we find large gorgonian fans bathed by plankton-rich water. Don’t try to swim around the whole site in one dive. It’s possible but a lot of work. There is little need to see the whole thing as every bit of it is covered with marine life. One highlight here is watching mating cuttlefish.

    (Difficulty Level: Easy)

     

    Crayfish Cave and Eagle’s Nest are the two dive main sites at Western Rocky. Crayfish Cave is located on the main rocky islet and features a cave and an arch starting in 22 meters of water, then sloping up as you enter the cave. Usually there is a friendly school of stripped snapper hovering around with lots of colorful seafans. The arch itself is big and dramatic, a great backdrop for photos. The tunnel exits out the other side so it’s a complete swim-through of the rock. It’s an easy cavern but better dived with a light as it’s pitch black for the first few meters.

     

    Inside the cavern you’ll find colorful sponges lining the ceiling and sides and a gravel bottom which keeps the visibility good. Sweeper fish and lobsters or crayfish occupy the cavern. You may spend 10 or more minutes inside the island, there is a lot to see top to bottom. It’s safe as the entrance and exits are easy to see, light or no light. It requires no special training.

     

    As you exit the tunnel you have a choice to turn left or right. If the current is mild you may swim over to Eagles Nest but usually it’s better to dive the sites separately. The wall is covered with crinoids, sponges, soft corals and hard corals. Fish life is excellent and plentiful.

     

    Eagles Nest is one of the very best dives in the archipelago as you never know what you’re going to see here. If you are lucky enough to see large pelagics during your cruise, Eagles Nest and Black Rock are the two places you will see them. Whale sharks and shovelnose rays visit the area as well as barracuda, schools of jack fish, snappers, and fusiliers. The dive site pumps with action. Deeper at Eagles Nest is one of the best fields of colorful sea fans you’ll find in the Andaman Sea. And moving up to the shallow waters you’ll find frogfish, ghost pipefish and harlequin shrimp living in the crevices and and sponge-covered overhangs. It’s a perfect dive as you are entertained at every depth.

     

    (Difficulty Level: Easy)

     

    Just a couple of nautical miles east and north of Western Rocky lies her sister. Northern Rocky is covered with bird guano and one of the better places to spot sea birds. The main rock is very shallow and not really dive-able, but just off the main island is an underwater pinnacle shaped like a small loaf of bread. You may swim around this pinnacle at different depths and end up in the shallows to end your dive. When visibility is good then this dive is fantastic as it’s beautiful, and a very popular manta cleaning station.

    (Difficulty Level: Easy)

     

    Often the first or the last dive of a trip, Shark Lagoon is located near the Thai border and is the closest good dive site to Kawthaung, our port of entry and exit. This island as seen from the air is more lagoon than island with one large shallow area which is connected by a short overhang to the open ocean. At high tide, you have to enter by ducking down, holding your breath or using your regulator. At low tide you may just swim inside.

     

    Inside the lagoon you may remove your BCD and weight belt and swim around. It’s quite large and to swim from end to end would take most people 30 minutes or more. There is a sandy bottom with sparse coral growth and the view up to the jungle covered cliffs is spectacular. It would be a good bird watching area if one had the time to spend a few hours in the lagoon with a kayak.

     

    We start the dive by swimming out of the lagoon where we find a wall which drops to around 30 meters or so. If the current is running, it’s a nice drift dive that takes you around the island. If the current is not running the dive is better as then you may swim slowly along the wall and look for the highlight of the dive, tigertail seahorses. Your guide will help point them out.

    Otherwise, the wall is covered with barrel and other sponges, whip corals, and soft and hard corals. Look to the crevices for every kind of critter you could imagine. It’s one of the best critter or macro dives in the archipelago.

     

    (Difficulty Level: Advanced)

     

    Far offshore of the Mergui Archipelago lie a series of submerged mountaintops that are collectively known as the Burma Banks, a name given to the area by dive shop owners back in the late 1980s. You won’t see this name on any chart. Surrounded by open sea in all directions, these remote, widely separated reefs were first dived in the early 1990s. Prior to this time, these seamounts were known to exist, yet nautical charts did not accurately represent their positions. After an extensive series of exploratory trips by several Phuket-based liveaboards equipped with the then new GPS devices, a total of five sandy banks were eventually located, four of which were dived regularly: Roe Bank, Rainbow Reef, Big Bank and Silvertip Bank. We dived this area before we had permission to visit the Mergui Archipelago proper as these banks are located in international waters. Permission to dive Mergui Archipelago itself didn’t come until 1997.

     

    The majority of dive-able areas at the banks are fairly flat, broad plateaus, typically about one kilometer in diameter. The shallowest depths are 21 to 24 meters, making for short bottom times but Nitrox gives us longer dives. Silvertip Bank is usually the last stop as much of the reef reaches within 15 meters of the surface. Unfortunately there are no walls here, only slightly sloping sand banks. At Silvertip, however, there are two good sloping drop-offs, one on each side of the bank, with good coral growth in shallow water. If currents are just right you may start deeper and swim shallow. The water surrounding all the banks is quite deep, averaging 250-300 meters.

     

    Marine life at the banks is healthy and abundant in most areas, although the diversity of species does not compare with the inshore areas. Most have a high percentage of live coral, but there are also areas of dead coral and rubble, probably caused by southwest storms or crown of thorns. Even these areas have interesting features, however, as there are many huge, ancient coral bommies scattered across the reef top, some of which have formed bizarre and intriguing shapes. Hard corals are the norm unlike our dives in the archipelago. Most other types of marine invertebrates are found here as well, although the banks will probably never be known as a great place for critters. Reef fish include many varieties found in other regions, although fewer species are represented. Because of their proximity to deep water, the banks are an excellent place to see open-water predators like rainbow runners, bonito, and husky dogtooth tuna.

     

    In spite of the features mentioned above, the main reason most people went to the Burma Banks was to see sharks. Altogether, at least nine species have been seen here, including rare encounters with tigers and scalloped hammerheads. Unfortunately, shark fishing in the early 2000s got most of the silvertips and nurse sharks which were very common at one time. As of this writing in 2018, reports are good regarding new sightings of juvenile sharks. If this trend continues, the Burma Banks may come back to their former diving glory.

     

    Diving at the Banks is nearly always exciting and rewarding, but it is not for everyone. This is real open-ocean diving–no sheltered anchorages or islands to hide behind, just open sea in all directions making supervision a priority for safe diver picks ups, especially as the weather can change for the worse during the dive. Although surface conditions may be glassy calm, it can also be very rough, especially when choppy seas are caused by wind opposing current. Most sites are quite deep, and strong, changeable currents are very common. Not all boats dive the banks, though the area is becoming more attractive again lately mostly due to the curiosity of new operators. It’s a long overnight journey and if conditions are not ideal, it’s a disappointing day and two very long nights.

     

     

    Ranong, Thailand

    Kawthoung Myanmar

    Mergui (Myeik) Township

    Western Rocky Island

    (Difficulty Level: Easy)

     

    Crayfish Cave and Eagle’s Nest are the two dive main sites at Western Rocky. Crayfish Cave is located on the main rocky islet and features a cave and an arch starting in 22 meters of water, then sloping up as you enter the cave. Usually there is a friendly school of stripped snapper hovering around with lots of colorful seafans. The arch itself is big and dramatic, a great backdrop for photos. The tunnel exits out the other side so it’s a complete swim-through of the rock. It’s an easy cavern but better dived with a light as it’s pitch black for the first few meters.

     

    Inside the cavern you’ll find colorful sponges lining the ceiling and sides and a gravel bottom which keeps the visibility good. Sweeper fish and lobsters or crayfish occupy the cavern. You may spend 10 or more minutes inside the island, there is a lot to see top to bottom. It’s safe as the entrance and exits are easy to see, light or no light. It requires no special training.

     

    As you exit the tunnel you have a choice to turn left or right. If the current is mild you may swim over to Eagles Nest but usually it’s better to dive the sites separately. The wall is covered with crinoids, sponges, soft corals and hard corals. Fish life is excellent and plentiful.

     

    Eagles Nest is one of the very best dives in the archipelago as you never know what you’re going to see here. If you are lucky enough to see large pelagics during your cruise, Eagles Nest and Black Rock are the two places you will see them. Whale sharks and shovelnose rays visit the area as well as barracuda, schools of jack fish, snappers, and fusiliers. The dive site pumps with action. Deeper at Eagles Nest is one of the best fields of colorful sea fans you’ll find in the Andaman Sea. And moving up to the shallow waters you’ll find frogfish, ghost pipefish and harlequin shrimp living in the crevices and and sponge-covered overhangs. It’s a perfect dive as you are entertained at every depth.

    South Twin Island

    North Twin Island

    Black Rock

    This large barren rock lying in the middle of nowhere in the central archipelago is considered to be the highlight of any trip and generally the furthest north most boats visit. The surrounding water is deeper than in the rest of the archipelago, attracting pelagic fish. Black Rock is famous as a cleaning station for oceanic manta rays.   The mantas come through to be cleaned by cleaner fish, hang around the rock for a day or two and then move along to parts unknown (though some are being tagged and tracked now.) They come within a few centimeters of divers and interact with us.

     

    The rock also attracts schooling fish, including several species of jacks and fusiliers while dense schools of glassfish hover over the coral heads.   Game fish circle the rock. The soft and hard corals are healthy and vibrant, and the visibility is normally excellent. Reef life is typical of the Andaman Sea, lionfish, scorpionfish, anemones and anemonefish, octopus, cuttlefish, stonefish, moray eels–all are very common on this rock and in the rest of the archipelago. Among other moray species seen regularly are jeweled, zebra, fimbriated and white-eyed, the latter two of which are sometimes seen snuggling together in the same crevice.

     

    Boats usually spend a full day here or longer as there are no other dive sites close by. Conditions change with the tides so each dive is unique. When the dive site is happening, it’s really happening and is one of the best dives anywhere.

    Lampi Island

    Clara Island

    West Canister

    McCloud Island

    Three Islets or Shark Cave Island

    Also called Shark Cave or In Through the Out Door *Difficulty Level: Easy

     

    This is probably the most famous dive site in Mergui. As the name suggests, there are three different rocky islets rising out of the sea. The large “brother” Shark Cave, has a canyon which transects the island via a short swim through. You begin in a protected lagoon watching schooling fish and sponge encrusted rock and as you move towards the edge of the lagoon, a cavern will become visible. Below you is another small swim through which often contains a nurse shark or large ray. Ahead you will see the other side of the island so just watch the surge and kick when the current is with you. Shooting through the hole you will emerge into the light to find a garden of soft corals, anemones, colorful crinoids, and hard corals growing over rocks. This is a wonderful place to search for ghost pipefish and to photograph your favorite anemone fish. From there you may swim around along the healthy ridge to where you began, swim towards Middle Brother to the south, or circumnavigate all of Shark Cave Islet. Your routes are governed by current strength and direction.

     

    Middle Brother can be dived separately or together with Shark Cave. There is a short channel that separates the two sites and if the current is mild, it’s easy to stay along the bottom and swim between the two. Most days the visibility is good enough to see across the sand towards the other site. Middle Brother is visible from the surface and underwater has a wall covered in soft corals and then a ridge descending into the depths with several interesting crevasses and canyons full of color. You may follow the ridge down to depth or swim inside to the amphitheater-shaped reef where schooling reef fish congregate.

     

    Little Brother lies towards the open sea and although it appears small on the surface, underwater you’ll find many rocks and pinnacles as you swim towards Shark Cave. Depending on currents, this dive can be easy or more challenging. It’s best to follow your dive guide as they will find the best way to negotiate the currents as they flow around the submerged rocks. The water teams with schools of fusilier, jacks, and barracuda all feeding on the plankton brought in by the current. If the current is slack, you’ll spend the dive searching for ghost pipefish, tigertail seahorse, nudibranchs and frogfish. The pinnacle is teeming with life.

    Shark Lagoon

    Andaman Club Pier Ranong

    High Rock

    Great Western Torres

    Hayes Island

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