We have lead many diving expeditions into Burma over the last 6 years with some of our longer expeditions proving to be truly memorable experiences. In March 2012 we had yet another epic adventure planned. This was to be our most ambitious trip to date. Thailand Dive & Sail had put together the diving portion of a trip organised by Journeys Within along with Ray of Hope Expeditions. The trip was to see Dr Andrea Marshall return to one of her top ten dive locations in the world, the now legendary Black Rock on her second mission to satellite tag Giant manta rays (Manta birostris) in the Andaman Sea.
The itinerary included the best dive sites in the Mergui Archipelago in Burma, the Burma Banks, Thailand’s premier dive site Richelieu Rock and the two sites popular for Manta Ray sightings, Koh Tachai and Koh Bon in the Similan Marine National Park. Our chosen vessel for such an auspicious trip was the SY Diva Andaman, a classic sailing yacht offering outstanding journeys into the romantic past of the early 20th century. With this being our only planned trip to Burma during the 2011-2012 scuba diving season, anticipation was running high but we were also feeling the pressure to deliver a memorable experience for the guests.
The SY Diva Andaman ©Thailand Dive and Sail
On boarding the Diva the night before departure our nerves calmed a little, enjoying some time getting to know the crew and being pampered by the 5 star service on board. What ever the outcome of the trip, at least we travel in the upmost luxury offered by any boat currently operating in the area. This was greatly appreciated by the guests when they boarded the boat in Kaw Thuang the following day, after an eventful, yet tiring week traveling overland in Burma. Completing the clearance procedures we set sail north, the sun setting over the limestone islands that dotted the horizon to the west. This was unknown territory to most onboard and dinner was filled with excited chatter about what everyone hoped to see during the trip. Obviously the main draw of the trip was to dive with Manta Rays and the highlight that evening was to watch a BBC documentary, Andrea, Queen of the Mantas with Andrea, Queen of the Mantas!
The Three Islets and one of Thailand Dive and Sail’s favourite dive sites, ‘In Through the Outdoor’
We woke at dawn at the Three Islets, our first dive was to be ‘In Through the Outdoor’, one of Thailand Dive & Sail’s favourite spots and macro heaven for photographers. It felt so good to be back in the water in Mergui as we started the dive through the canyon, exiting the swim-through to be dazzled by the beautiful and colourful soft corals and sea fans surrounded by a huge abundance of fish. Over the two dives we encountered blotched fantails and Kuhl’s sting rays, two spot frog-fish, nudi branches, cuttlefish, octopus whilst surrounded by schooling fusiliers, barracuda and snapper.
The afternoon was spent cruising to Bo Cho, a small Island situated to the south of Lampi Island to visit the Moken who had settled there at Ma Kyone Galet. All season we had been collecting reading glasses, malaria medicine and supplies to help contain the spread of malaria as part of our SEE&SEA Campaign II to help the Moken in Burma. The guests had also been generous with donations and we spent some time with the Moken explaining what we had brought them and how we hoped they would use the items to prevent the spread of malaria and to help take better care of the environment. We had a rare glimpse into the simple lives of these down trodden people, who despite their tough existence are always smiling, seeing the way our items were received in a dignified way and the happy interactions between visitors and residents as group photos were taken and games were played. After a competitive night dive trying to spot the endemic tapestry shrimp we headed north west out into the open ocean, in fact a long way north west, to Black Rock.
Black Rock lies 70km from the nearest inhabited island, 188km northwest from Kaw Thuang on the Burmese/Thai boarder and a staggering 400km from the nearest decompression chamber facility in Phuket. It provides the only shallow area of water for miles around. Aptly named, the limestone rock juts out of the water, dark and menacing, rising to a height of around 10m above sea level. Only a few metres wide and approximately 50m long, Black Rock defies the natural elements and is truly an awe inspiring place to don scuba equipment and jump! I was extremely nervous before jumping into the water. A contact on the mainland had hinted that Black Rock had been bombed recently plus there were no guarantees of manta ray sightings. I feared the worse as we rolled in from the dingy.
On decent the site looked normal. Purple soft corals and anemones carpeted the rock, hiding many varieties of moray eels, octopus and crustaceans. Huge gorgonian sea fans stood proudly surrounded
by colourful reef fish as schooling fish swam by. We did find evidence of a recent bombing, a few skeletons littered the reef but as there was plenty of fish around we paid little notice. Heading into the current to the southern tip of the rock all I could do was scan the blue waters for mantas, my thoughts turning to the disappointment that would ensue if they were not around. Within seconds anxiety turned to joy as medium sized manta came into view out of the blue, effortlessly gliding into the current. I thought I must be damaging my scuba tank as I excitedly banged the aluminium to alert my divers of the mantas presence. We spent around 10 minutes fighting the current, hardly noticing the effort as another manta appeared followed by a third. We were back at Black Rock and so were the Mantas. Although Andrea did not get the chance to tag a manta on this first dive, all groups had encountered them and it was apparent that many different individuals were present.
Surface intervals ticked slowly by, the time to dive again could not come quickly enough. On all four dives we encountered mantas that day, along with eagle rays, two giant frogfish, numerous types of moray eels, scorpion fish, lion fish, anemone fish and cowrie shells. Apart from after the first dive, no one mentioned the fish skeletons, we were all swept along by Black Rock’s magic. However high our spirits were, there was still one negative aspect we could not ignore. Andrea and her group has failed to tag a single manta, only a few ID shots for the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna’s manta database. The group’s response was simple and unanimous, forget the Burma Banks and stay for another day for Black Rock was becoming addictive!
Two Giant Frogfish at Black Rock ©Thailand Dive and Sail
To vary the diving the next day we lead our groups to some of the outer rocks and pinnacles that surround Black Rock and were rewarded by sightings of numerous rays, the occasional shark, schooling trevallies and barracudas along with some nice critters including a tigertail seahorse and clown shrimps. Again it was 4 out of 4 for manta sightings. They were curious and not shy in approaching divers but uncooperative in letting Andrea approach from above to deploy the satellite tag. On one occasion a manta was spotted many metres below Andrea but being on her safety stop with only 30bar of air remaining it did not seem like a good idea to plunge down deeper to attempt a tagging. Our other marine biologist, Daan did manage to get a genetic sample from a manta but another great day’s diving ended unsuccessfully for Andrea.
Octopus at Black Rock ©Jannik Pedersen
Although the two days at Black Rock had seen the best diving of the entire scuba season so far, it was with reluctance when the Diva had to weigh anchor to start the long journey south. Despite the disappointment of not succeeding to tag a manta ray out thoughts turned to the remainder of the trip. We still had a couple more dives left in Burma plus the Thailand leg of our trip to come. All the remaining dive sites to come were potential manta ray sites. Having been thrilled by Black Rock we cruised overnight, fingers crossed that there was still more excitement to come. To be continued…By Ric Parker