For the last two years I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to dive with Dr Andrea Marshall as part of her Ray of Hope Expeditions to Burma and Thailand. These trips have been the highlight of my Thailand and Burma diving season each year. Getting the chance to go on my third consecutive Ray of Hope Expedition on board the luxurious Diva Andaman again filled me with excitement.

I’d been counting down the days in the run up to this trip, it really couldn’t come around fast enough. I’d only just returned from a Similan liveaboard trip on the SY Diva Andaman when it was time once again to head up to Ranong and embark on another adventure with Andrea.

Leaving Ranong 17/02/2013

I arrived at Ranong Deep Sea Port with Andrea and Janneman at around 2:00pm. We’d had a nice drive up from Khao Lak, catching up on key events that had happened in the year since we last dived Burma together. CITES CoP 16 was a hot topic of conversation too. Dr Andrea Marshall, Director of the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Janneman Conradie, Director of Conservation at the MMF were in Thailand as part of the Ecuadorian delegation proposing to get Manta rays listed on CITES.

leaving-ranong

Andrea had been extremely busy in the run up to CITES, however, arriving in Thailand earlier than the other delegates presented us with another opportunity to return to the legendary Black Rock dive site in Burma’s Mergui Archipelago. Dr Marshall had enjoyed some success satellite tagging giant manta rays (Manta Birostris) at Black Rock and this small, remote island was proving to be an extremely important manta aggregation site.

I was excited to have the opportunity to dive with Andrea again and also to meet Janneman for the first time, his enthusiasm for nature and conservation comes across straight away. He also has an enviable life flying a microlight to spot whales and dugongs. We were, however, extremely disappointed that Clive wouldn’t be on the trip with us. Clive had proved his value in the past rigging temporary tagging gear for Andrea when all seemed lost. He’s also the most knowledgable guide for Burma around. He would be missed on more than a few occasions over the next nine days.

Driving down to the dockside we could clearly see the SY Diva Andaman, she would be our home for the next nine days. We arrived before the other guests, prepared our equipment and ate some delicious spaghetti bolognese for lunch. Then some time to rest while we waited for other customers to arrive including Suzanne who has dived with us many times over the last three years.

victoria-point-burma

As the guests arrived I collected their required paperwork and fees for entering Burma to dive. Passport, passport photo page photocopy, Thai entry stamp photocopy, two passport photographs and 200 US$. Clearing Thai immigration we departed Ranong Deep Sea port at 4:45pm heading across the Pakchan River mouth to Kaw Thuang (Victoria Point) arriving at 5:30pm or 5:00pm local time. Burma is 30 minutes behind Thailand.

After clearing Burmese immigration and welcoming our local guide Jo Sue onboard we weighed anchor and headed west into the open sea, towards the sunset and the start of our latest Mergui adventure.

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Dinner was served, seafood curry served in a coconut shell with rice, followed by lemongrass ice-cream, as we made our way to the southern tip of St Matthews Island where a large bay provides sheltered anchorage. I got to do the boat briefing and introduce Dr Andrea Marshall to the guests. After a short talk by Andrea, outlining her objectives and what she hoped to achieve during the trip most guests went to bed. I made use of the last bit of telephone signal to call my family.

Day One South Mergui Archipelago 18/02/2013

Burma Tides & Sea Conditions

High Tide Low Tide
3:10am 2.1m
4:00pm 2.1m
9:10am 1.1m
10:30pm 1.4m
Wind: 1knt from North Wave: 0.2m

The first day of the trip started with my usual ritual onboard the SY Diva Andaman, waking up just before dawn and enjoying a mug of fresh coffee. Jo Sue and I helped Captain Sunee plot the course for Cock Combe’s Island. Nuengy, the Diva’s tour leader started the guest’s day with her morning ritual, wake up call at 6:45am with a sharp rap on the cabins doors with a solid brass spoon. I prepared my camera equipment for the first dive.

Arriving at Cock Combe’s Island I started the trip’s main dive briefing, then the dive briefing for Cock Combe’s Wall dive.

Cock Combe Island has a rather sinister look. The Island rises vertically from the water then slopes upwards. The limestone rock is rough and jagged with a uniform, inhospitable grey colour. Despite it’s appearance it offers perfect conditions for the first dive of the trip with a hidden surprise in store for the divers.

Rolling in at the base of the wall there is a shallow ledge where we could stay shallow to adjust weights and buoyancy.

DIVE ONE 8:09am

Cock Combe’s Wall, Cock Combe’s Island.

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With our first dive under our weight belt we had a long surface interval to enjoy a traditional Thai lunch and plenty of time to relax. It was over three hours cruising time to our next Burma dive site, Fan Forest Pinnacle.

The SY Diva Andaman has plenty of great places to chill out in-between dives. The main fore deck has a large shaded area under a bimini. The top deck has sun loungers with umbrellas for shade. There is also the saloon which is kept cool with the ocean breeze that blows straight through to the kitting up area aft. There’s also nice air-conditioned cabins if anyone wants a nap between dives.

The time to dive came soon enough, although completely submerged I could judge our approach to the dive site using Western Rocky and Northern Rocky as my reference points.

After our nice easy check dive at Cock Combe’s Island it was time for our first taste of a proper Mergui Archipelago dive site.

DIVE TWO 1:11pm

Fan Forest Pinnacle.

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With dive two of the trip completed we just had a short run south to Western Rocky where we planned to do the remaining two dives of the day. It is also the best place to start from if you are planning to head to the Burma Banks from the south. Although not the most exciting dive at Fan Forest Pinnacle, our groups were beginning to gel together ready for the more advanced dive sites to come.

We approached Western Rocky from the north and anchored off the southern side. The main island juts vertically out of the sea, scars in the rock show clearly where the underwater cave begins below the surface. The rock is topped with scrub like grass. To the east there are four small rocks that break the surface, plus two larger rocky pinnacles. On one of the larger pinnacles a pair of sea eagles have made their nest.

I was a little apprehensive before jumping in the water at Western Rocky.

DIVE THREE 4:45pm

The Eagles Nest, Western Rocky.

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It is a well known fact amongst colleagues and former dive guests that I am not the keenest night diver. Quite often I will find some loop hole to get out of the night dive or preferably switch to a sunset dive instead. Night diving in the Similan Islands can be a tedious affair, there is really not that much going on. But given the chance to night dive in Burma, well that’s a different matter entirely. Western Rocky is one of my favourite night dives in the Mergui Archipelago.

The limestone rock at Western Rocky is a haven for crustaceans. There are the common Durban dancing shrimp (Rhynchocinetes Durbanensis) and Banded boxer shrimp (Stenopus Hispidus) in every crevice. Night diving in Burma with Andrea Marshall, however, can mean only one thing…

DIVE FOUR 7:21pm

Eagles Nest, Western Rocky (night dive).

Getting back on the boat the captain started the engine and weighed anchor, the engine would be running all through the night. We had a long way to travel, a long long way out to the BURMA BANKS.