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It took all night to reach the southern portion of the Mergui Archipelago. Awaking shortly before sunrise to check our current location with the Diva Andaman’s captain, we found ourselves approaching the coordinates for Fan Forest Pinnacle, a submerged limestone rock known for strong currents which occasionally bring in whale sharks and large rays. Our itinerary allowed for one dive here. Descending underwater we were greeted with the spectacular sight of hugh gorgonian sea fans that literally form fan forests on the ocean floor and rock. Fusiliers darted around us in large schools, harried by barracudas, rainbow runners and spanish mackerel in the moderate current. Cuttlefish hovered above the rock while small critters lurked in the dark cracks, it was difficult to know where to look such was the marine life activity. Occasionally scanning for a passing manta I set to work finding an ornate ghost pipefish to help complete the wish list of one of my divers.

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A forest of gorgonian sea fans at the aptly named ‘Fan Forest Pinnacle’

Our final dive in Burma was at Western Rocky, one of Mergui’s most impressive sites. One large limestone island with five smaller pinnacles offer a huge area to dive. The main rock has a large, impressive underwater archway and a 40m long tunnel running through the entire rock, while the smaller pinnacles, completely covered in anemones and soft corals give this site huge potential and remains a firm favourite of Thailand Dive and Sail. However, today was not going to be our day. With no manta sighting at Fan Forest Pinnacle our hopes rested at Western Rocky. But earlier, either that same morning or the day before disaster had struck Western Rocky. The site had been bombed leaving dead or dying fish littering most of the ocean floor. Unfortunately, blast fishing is still conducted in the area of Mergui close to the Thai boarder, where bombs, manufactured near Ranong in Thailand pass into Burmese waters to be used by unscrupulous fishermen. Little effort is made by either the Thai or Burmese authorities to contain the problem. One of the goals of Thailand Dive and Sail’s SEE&SEA Campaign is to work with the Moken for a more sustainable future for the region but seeing a whole reef eco-system laid to waste by bombing is a stark reminder there is still a long way to go before the Mergui Archipelago has the adequate protection is so desperately needs. The incident left a very bitter taste as we made a course back to the mainland to complete our entry into Thailand. From the highs of Black Rock we ended the Burma portion of the trip on a low.

After checking out of Burma and into Thailand we set our overnight course for Richelieu Rock, Thailand’s number one dive site in the Surin Islands National Park. The guests were treated to a presentation by Dr Andrea Marshall, outlining the amazing work she and other scientists are conducting around the world, studying Manta Rays and Whale Sharks for the Foundation of Marine Megafauna. The destruction we had seen in Burma is not unique, as we learnt more about the perilous situation our oceans are in and how it affects all marine creatures and ultimately all life on earth. The talk was inspiring leaving my mind swirling with ideas for possible ideas to help the Andaman Sea on a more local level.

Waking up to fresh coffee we were greeted by the most dazzling sunrise of the trip so far. The ocean at Richelieu Rock was like glass, perfectly mirroring the sky and everyone was excited to get back into the water. Manta rays occasionally visit Richelieu Rock, but the site is better known for its abundance of schooling fish and macro creatures all set against a backdrop of purple and violet soft corals, the vibrant colours that inspired Jacques Cousteau when he named the site after France’s most notorious cardinal. We did two dives at Richelieu, both thoroughly enjoyable before it was time to get back on the manta trail. Next dive was to be Koh Tachai Pinnacle, one of the dive sites where you stand a good chance of seeing giant manta rays.

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Sunrise at Richelieu Rock

Conditions at Koh Tachai were perfect. A strong current was going to make the dive strenuous, but increase our chances of manta ray sightings. Time was fast running out and still we hadn’t tagged a single ray. The dive itself was quite uneventful, we headed into the current to a beautiful area of huge gorgonian sea fans and soft corals. We hung around waiting for something to appear. For my group, nothing did, just a few trevaly chasing fusiliers and the odd barracuda. With the current getting stronger and air getting low we headed back to the mooring line. I missed the line and drifted over the dive site away from my group. I was halfway through my safety stop, all alone when out of nowhere a small female manta appeared. I banged my tank hoping someone would hear and arrive with a satellite tag. As the manta came closer I immediately stopped banging, water creeping into my mask as I broke out into a huge grin. There was an object attached to the manta’s back. It looked like a small microphone with a metal cable sticking out of the wrong end. At some point in the dive Andrea had managed to deploy the satellite tag. I arrived back at the Diva to a scene of jubilation. Success at last and a historical moment for all onboard, we had been part of the first ever tagging of a giant manta ray in Thailand.

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Giant Manta ray at Koh Tachai, Thailand

The following morning we dived Koh Tachai again. I found myself slightly away from the main dive site, towards a smaller pinnacle to the north. A manta swept in from the blue, almost overhead and swimming straight at my buddy Gavin. It was like a stand off, the manta curiously observing Gavin, Gavin staring back in awe of this majestic creature. Being this close to a manta is a humbling experience and by far the best moment of the entire trip for Gavin and I. It wasn’t long before the rest of the groups arrived and also a couple more manta rays. With the pressure lifted by the previous days tagging we relaxed in the water and enjoyed the show.

It seems like Andrea is charmed when it comes to manta sightings. During the trip we encountered more manta rays than the entire diving season combined. With one more dive to go before heading back to the mainland it seemed a forgone conclusion it would be with manta rays. The dive was at Koh Bon Ridge, Thailand’s legendary manta dive site. If there were manta rays at Koh Tachai then they would certainly be at Koh Bon too. But our luck ran out, maybe we shouldn’t have predicted nature or maybe this was nature’s way of ensuring we would return again, denying us a manta ray this time left us wanting to come back for more.

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Thailand Dive and Sail are planning to return to the Mergui Archipelago in February and March 2012. Contact us if you would like to be part or the experience.

Ric Parker