North of the Thai border, in the middle of the Andaman Sea, lies Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, a collection of some 800 islands scattered across 4,600 square miles of relatively unexplored ocean. The Burmese government first opened this remote area to tourism in 1997, and in the years since, the islands have earned an almost mystical reputation amongst the international diving community. To many, they represent the road less traveled, the unbeaten track and the last frontier of underwater exploration. Even today, almost 20 years after the islands became accessible to international visitors, Mergui’s dive sites continue to benefit from their isolated location. Those who visit the archipelago after diving Thailand’s Similan Islands in the southern Andaman Sea will be struck by the significant increase in marine biodiversity at Mergui, a clear advertisement for the advantages of so many years of isolation. Best of all, the distance between Mergui’s dive sites and the small number of liveaboards that ply the area mean that divers will often have even the most popular reefs all to themselves. In this sense, Myanmar allows us to recapture the sense of adventure and discovery that defined the dawn of recreational scuba.
Mergui Archipelago is famous both for its macro and its pelagic life. On the smaller side, the thick coral coverage and intricate limestone topography of many of the islands’ dive sites provides shelter for a vast range of macro critters, including frogfish, pipefish, ribbon eels and a plethora of rarely seen crustaceans. On the larger side, Mergui offers the chance to see manta rays, mobulas and a variety of shark species including grey reef, nurse, zebra, silvertip and occasionally, whale sharks. This diversity of marine life is Mergui’s greatest attraction, and in particular, makes the archipelago a dream come true for underwater photographers. More often than not, divers will find that they’re the first in the water at any given dive site, allowing them the freedom to explore a reef that has not yet been disturbed by other dive groups. The uncrowded nature of Mergui’s dive sites also makes the region ideal for photographers, affording them the space needed to frame each shot perfectly. Highlights of the Mergui Archipelago include Black Rock, a remote rocky pinnacle that offers regular sightings of manta rays and Shark Cave, named for the nurse sharks that use the site’s inner cavern as their favored resting place.
Unfortunately, while the Mergui Archipelago remains one of Southeast Asia’s most pristine dive destinations, it has not entirely escaped the ravages of human exploitation. In 1997, pioneering dive charters were not the only ones to see the islands as a source of untapped potential, and since then the archipelago has been plagued by the unethical fishing methods of Chinese and Thai commercial fisheries. The region’s shark population, although still considerably healthier than in other areas of Southeast Asia, has been severely depleted by long-line fishing boats, and some islands bear the scars of indiscriminate blast fishing. To date, very little has been done by the Burmese Navy to counter these issues, and the evidence of this destruction is a blight on an otherwise untouched area of natural beauty. However, Mergui Archipelago has proven remarkably resilient and the diversity of marine flora and fauna that graces the islands’ dive sites is still impressive to behold. With luck, Myanmar’s growing dive tourism industry will encourage the Burmese government to take more effective action in protecting this incredible biodiversity for generations to come.
Although there are isolated land-based dive centers on the archipelago, the most popular way to explore Mergui’s dive sites is via a liveaboard charter, most of which depart from Ranong, Phuket, or Khao Lak in Thailand. The dive season in Myanmar runs from October to May. During the rest of the year, the industry closes down due to severe monsoon weather in the Andaman Sea. The best time for manta ray and whale shark sightings is from February to May.