A Myanmar and the Similan Islands liveaboard is an excellent combination of greatest hits and exploratory diving, especially if you go to Myanmar’s justifiably famous Black Rock.
Manta Ray and diver, Koh Bon, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
No matter how long you’ve been using a camera, there’s always room for a schoolboy error – as I was humbled to discover recently while diving with Thailand Aggressor at Myanmar’s remote Black Rock. Three hours full steam from any other island in the Mergui Archipelago, Black Rock is one of South East Asia’s premier dive sites because it’s one of the few known places where giant oceanic manta rays gather in the region. We’d scheduled four dives here, and the first was uneventful, apart from finding a giant frogfish perched imperiously in full view on the coral debris at the base of the rock’s sheer limestone drop to 20 metres.
Frogfish, Black Rock, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
My camera was working fine and so at the beginning of our second dive, when I heard the frantic tank banging of our guide and looked up to see a truly huge manta heading straight towards me, I knew this was going to be The Shot. I raised the viewfinder to my eye, watched the manta fill the entire frame on my super wide-angle fisheye lens, hit the camera trigger… and nothing happened. I tried several times more until I realised the camera battery was as dead as my chance of getting the picture. Moral of the story – never leave the camera accidentally switched on between dives.
View from below, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
That particular disappointment aside, it was still a thrill to spend the day at Black Rock. Oceanic manta rays were only proven to be a separate species from reef manta rays in 2008 by marine scientist Andrea Marshall. Members of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, which Dr Marshall co-founded, visit Black Rock annually on their Ray Of Hope chartered liveaboard expedition to observe and identify the oceanic manta rays to add to their global database. (The BBC documentary Andrea: Queen Of Mantas gives a concise overview of the MMF’s work).
Juvenile whale shark, Black Rock, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
During the four dives, we saw several more mantas, all sadly too far away for me to get any memorable shots, but it was heartening to know they were still around in numbers. We even had a blink and you’d miss it encounter with a speeding juvenile whale shark, cleaving through the water below while we were just nearing the end of our dive, a retinue of cleaner fish struggling to keep up.
Black Rock is the furthest north most Myanmar liveaboards explore – its isolation and distance from Mergui’s other, more southerly, dive sites mean you need to be on a solid, stable boat like the Thailand Aggressor in case weather conditions turn bad.
During our 10 day trip, conditions in Myanmar seemed oddly better than neighbouring Thailand, where the trip began and ended – we had seas so flat calm you could see the clouds in the sky from under the water.
Coral Bommie and glassfish, Similan Islands © Chris Mitchell
While Myanmar has opened up politically in the last couple of years and there has already been a huge influx of tourists and foreign investment, the Mergui archipelago – some 800 islands – remains one of South East Asia’s last great wilderness areas. There are still only a few liveaboard boats operating here, all crossing over from Thailand, and it’s rare not to have a dive site all to yourself. Much of the archipelago is still unexplored due to its sheer size, although sadly Burmese fishermen seem to have most areas well mapped out and some sites occasionally show evidence of dynamite bombing, using Mergui’s remoteness to easily evade detection.
Yellow snapper, Richelieu Rock, Similan Islands © Chris Mitchell
Even so, it’s precisely this sense of mystery that gives Mergui much of its appeal, and the recent realisation of just how scientifically important sites like Black Rock are only increase speculation about What Else Is Out There.
Big boulder swimthrough with fan coral and glassfish, Elephant Head Rock, Similan Islands © Chris Mitchell
Mergui also has a slightly forbidding reputation – its water are generally greener and slightly colder than neighbouring Thailand, despite their proximity, although we had generally excellent viz during our time in Myanmar. Topographically, most of Mergui’s well-known dive sites are limestone islands, which have been shaped by the sea over centuries and provides a plethora of nooks and crannies for critters to find shelter.
Frogfish, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
There is a huge array of macro subjects waiting to be discovered here – almost immediately after entering the water at Rocky One we discovered an white and yellow ornate ghostpipe fish, right next door to a juvenile frogfish so well merged into the surrounding wall that it went un-noticed for several minutes until there was a yelp of recognition through someone’s regulator.
Cuttlefish, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
Three Islets is another happy hunting ground for small things, and after you’ve passed through the spectacular canyon swimthrough known as In Through The Out Door, you emerge with the surge onto a busy sloping reef where cuttlefish and devil scorpionfish await.
Popcorn shrimp, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
Much as I love small stuff, taking wide-angle photos is more my thing, and despite the manta debacle, Mergui provided several other great opportunities. Fan Forest Pinnacle is exactly that, with dozens of huge fan corals almost growing on top of each other, arranged in serried rows on the site’s slopes. Frog Rock was a real surprise, a collection of rocky outcrops thickly carpeted in a riot of soft corals – it was heartening to see the reef look so healthy and see the colours come alive in the morning light.
Swimthrough and fan corals, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
My favourite was The Archway at Crayfish Cave, a massive cathedral-like window carved out of the limestone with perfectly-placed fan corals at its base. The eponymous cave itself is also interesting – it’s actually a tunnel that runs from one side of the island to the other, around 3 metres wide and sloping up to the same above.
Diver inside Cocks Comb lagoon, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
Perhaps Mergui’s best secret is at Cock Coombe island – you submerge about three metres or so near to a particular spot by the sheer cliff wall – and once down, realise that there’s a huge hole in the rock you can swim through. Once on the other side, you re-surface into a spectacular lagoon carved out inside the island, surrounded on all sides by its towering cliffs and so invisible from the outside world.
Tiered corpet of corals, Black Rock, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
The liveaboard had already explored Thailand’s Similan Islands on the cruise up to the Myanmar border, and the difference between the islands and archipelago is quite dramatic given how near they are to each other. The Similans’ dive sites are characterised by big, smooth-sided boulders and sandy slopes – at sites like Christmas Point and North Point, the boulders provide epic canyons and swimthroughs amongst stones the size of houses, perfect for wide-angle, while on the slopes are numerous coral bommies that are teeming with glassfish and other life. Glassfish seemed to become a recurring motif for me on this trip, and I started getting a little bit obsessed with trying to capture their synchronised movement and how they caught the light.
Diver with octopus, Richelieu Rock, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
Crossing back over the border into Thailand on the way home, the nearest dive site in Thai waters to Myanmar is Richelieu Rock, itself a horseshoe-shaped limestone pinnacle far away from other islands and widely regarded as the country’s best dive site. The hundreds of resident schooling yellow snapper here make for great photos, and there is an abundance of other life both big and small that rewards multiple dives – the large octopus making its elastic way around the interior of the horseshoe was a real joy, while seahorses and harlequin shrimp were also found by eagle-eyed macro hunters.
Diver with orange soft corals, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
Our final dive was at Koh Bon, Thailand’s most famous manta ray hotspot. This was where I’d seen my first ever manta ray, back in 2004, but in recent years their presence had become very hit and miss. However, during the 2013 – 14 dive season, there had been a huge resurgence of manta ray and whale shark sightings in the Similans, probably the best season in over a decade. We’d had no luck when we’d stopped off here on our way to Myanmar, and I felt a bit glum about our prospects now.
Sea snake amongst glassfish, Koh Bon © Chris Mitchell
Submerged on the huge limestone ridge that pointed out from Koh Bon’s sheer wall, there was no sign of any manta. I contented myself with bothering yet more glassfish, suddenly enlivened by a sea snake bursting through the middle of the shoal as it hunted across the reef.
Manta Ray, Koh Bon, Thailand © Chris Mitchell
We were already doing our safety stop when there was a frenzy of tank banging and there, sweeping in with impossible grace across the ridge, glided a giant oceanic manta ray, at least four metres wide. Wishing I’d conserved my air better, I still managed to get a couple of shots as it stayed with us for a good ten minutes, wheeling around over the reef. There couldn’t really be a better end to the trip.
Soft corals, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
As a 10 day trip, the Myanmar – Similan Islands combination offers a great mix of contrasting environments, and there’s an excellent range of big and small stuff too. Mergui is likely to remain a niche destination for the foreseeable future simply because it requires a long cruise to get there – and also because there’s a hefty $200 USD Myanmar marine park fee on top of all the standard liveaboard costs. That won’t put me off though – I know I want to go back to Black Rock, and next time, I might even manage to avoid self-sabotaging my camera.
Soft corals, Myanmar © Chris Mitchell
A different version of this article was previously published in Underwater Photography magazine.