Burma Liveaboard on the Deep Andaman Queen
I was a little apprehensive heading out on this Burma liveaboard. It had been a while since my last Burma dive, 687 days if I was to count the time accurately. Not that I have been missing diving there or anything.
Well, to be brutally honest I have really, really missed diving there and I was a little worried I might have lost some of my familiarity with the dive sites. I had also heard some fairly average trip reports from the season so far. So understandably I was a little apprehensive.
My group was to be six very experienced divers from the UK, who have already dived a lot of cool places around the world. So my plan was to get re-familiar with the sites sharpish and hope that Burma would have returned to form.
Setting off to the ritual explosions of firecrackers on board the Deep Andaman Queen my apprehension was swiftly replaced by the sheer excitement of returning to the Mergui Archipelago.
But First Some Dives in Thailand
The first day of the trip we had four scheduled dives in Thailand working our way north where we would eventually end up on the boarder between Thailand and Myanmar. The schedule looked just fine, dive one at Koh Bon, dive two at Koh Tachai and dives three and four atRichelieu Rock. An impressive day’s diving and Thailand’s big guns when it comes to quality dive sites.
Straight from the off Koh Bon set the bar high with a giant manta ray that cruised by a few times during the dive. Koh Tachai was a little tough going, with a moderate current flowing over the dive site. Another manta ray put in a brief appearance as it cruised below us while ascending to our safety stop.
Richelieu Rock was on it’s usual fine form. Nothing big but plenty of fish life all around the dive site. The sunset dive there was marvellous and ended our first day perfectly. A great start to the trip and time to enjoy a beer watching the sunset over the Surin Islands.
Returning to Burma
The morning of the second day was spent clearing Thai immigration and checking into Myanmar. We all got a lie in instead of the customary WAKEY WAKEY from Steve at 6:00am. By mid morning we had weighed anchor and were cruising to our first Mergui Archipelago dive site, the iconic, picture postcard tiny limestone pinnacle with the tree growing on top, High Rock. Excited.
My group started the dive heading deep around the north-eastern section of the dive site. The visibility was good for High Rock, though we had started where the rock above the surface cast a shadow on our route. There were plenty of fish about, especially fusiliers that darted about us, but nothing really special was happening.
The dive site itself was looking a little beaten up. I had to remind myself that High Rock is always like that. Old fishing nets, empty shells and oysters just get absorbed into the site. Though not pretty, it does add extra places for the abundance of macro life to hide.
Rounding the south-west of the dive site everything lit up. The sun shone brightly, even down at around 20 metres. I spotted a small yellow tiger tail sea horse. Off to the left a small school of chevron barracuda swam by. There were schools of fish everywhere and the corals were giving off a healthy glow of colour. Much better, we just needed to add the sunshine.
We only had time for two dives on the first day in Burma. Dive two was a night dive at the Three Islets. I’m not fan of night dives personally but a night dive here is definitely not to be missed. And the site did not disappoint. There was plenty of activity, plenty of nocturnal critters about plus a small blotched fantail ray feeding that kept us entertained for a while. Great stuff as usual.
Now it was the captain’s time to work, the overnight cruise north, the long haul to Black Rock.
The Dark Side of Black Rock
I really get a kick waking up at Black Rock. I’m usually up just before the sunrise when the Andaman Sea is still dark. First off you have to locate the rock in the darkness. Then when you do find it, the rock is little more than a dark menacing scar breaking the surface. This is the Burma dive site where anything can happen. Manta rays, many species of sharks, eagle rays and sting rays have been logged here on previous dives. There’s also a fair amount of cool macro life too, including frogfish, sea horses, pipefish and harlequin shrimp. On a good day there is no where as exciting Black Rock.
Black Rock itself is around 60 metres long running roughly north to south and around 10 metres wide. Once under the surface the West side is a wall that bottoms out around 30 metres before quickly tumbling down to over 70 metres. The East side slopes down to around 30 metres and there are some further rocks about 20 metres from the main rock on the bottom. The dive site is also extremely remote. You can just about see some other islands on the horizon but essentially you are diving a small rock in the middle of nowhere.
As always I jumped in with high hopes of a great day at Black Rock. These high hopes quickly disappeared when we saw the southern end of the dive site. It had been recently bombed, possibly two days previously. Dead fish littered the bottom, the water column in this area void of anything alive. Later in the day I was to discover the remains of the crude chemical bomb that had caused the damage. Sadly blast fishing continues to plague the Mergui region, sadder still is the blast fishing industry is wholly driven from the Thai side of the boarder where the practice has long been outlawed. Bombs produced in Thailand are destroying the waters in Burma, waters that Burmese fishermen and Moken depend upon greatly for their existence.
Heading north along the sloping side of Black Rock there were more positive signs of life, but not a great deal more. There were still plenty of moray eels lurking in the cracks between rocks and the carpets of anemones, purple soft corals and large sea fans did add some colour to the scene. The visibility was great, ironically you could see nothing, nothing for as far as the eye could see.
Dive one done, only three more to go at Black Rock. This was to be one of the longer days of our trip. Dive four shortly before sunset was more eventful. Not greatly so, but a strong current coupled with the fading light did bring out what was left alive at Black Rock for some last minute feeding and hunting before night time.
The Magic of the Three Islets
If the first full day’s diving at Black Rock had been a disappointment then the Three Islets certainly put the trip back on track. At Black Rock you hope for some excitement, at the Three Islets it’s the quantity and diversity of life that will blow you away (hopefully not in the blast bomb kind of way). If you are familiar with Richelieu Rock in Thailand then the Three Islets are like three Richelieu’s next to each other, with at least twice as much going on. The larger middle pinnacle of the three also features an exciting canyon to navigate, ending in a long swim through that blasts you out like a torpedo onto the main area of reef. I call the dive site ‘In Through the Out Door”, but it is commonly referred to as ‘Shark Cave’.
We did this dive first, starting in the canyon and straight away spotting a sleeping blotched fantail ray under a large limestone rock. There was some surge in the canyon, enough to prevent us swimming down into the shark cave, but it was still fairly easy to swim to the exit. The exit was somewhat more tricky, the surge would suck you into the swim-through and then push you back to where you had started from. With some hard kicking and a bit of clinging onto rocks, one by one my team was spat out of the exit. Unfortunately Steve’s octopus had been free flowing whilst in the surge and he was pretty low on air, so myself, along with John ascended with him to keep things safe. The rest of the dive site did look amazing. Good visibility and the usual massive quantities of fish.
The following two dives we explored the two smaller pinnacles on either side of the main rock. I’ve always known them as South Flanker Island and North Flanker Island, as my instructor who first introduced me to Burma diving was a big rugby player. On the Deep Andaman Queen they are referred to a the Submarine and Square Rock, names that do fit the appearance of the pinnacles better.
Both dives were amazing. There was life and movement everywhere. Huge schools of every variety of fusiliers surrounded the rocks. Bigeye snapper schooled around some of the deeper areas making everything look yellow. Every single rock surface appeared to be moving as thousands upon thousands of shrimps crawled all over them. At the Three Islets shrimp, glass fish and groupers are as common as water molecules. In between the colourful soft corals and sea fans there were plenty of scorpion fish and lion fish, moray eels and all types of anemone fish found in the Andaman Sea.
On one of the dives I spotted a cool yellow tiger tail sea horse. Anne’s group beat that, encountering a whale shark on Square Rock. The Three Islets were on fine form that day, delivering some special Burma diving and helping to put the memory of Black Rock just a little further to the back of my mind.
Heading South for the Finale
After the Three Islets we had to make our way south through the Mergui Archipelago, diving along the way at Stewart Rocks, then at North/Frog/Orange Rock, depending on your naming preference, Fan Forest Pinnacle before reaching our most southerly site, Western Rocky, for a sunset dive.
Frog Rock (that’s my preferred name) really stood out that day. Often poor visibility disguises the true beauty of this dive site. On our dive there the vis was great, at least 20 metres and nice blue water. Orange (hence another of the alternative names) and yellow soft corals dominate on this small rocky island underwater. You kind of get what it must feel like to be amongst the home supporters at a Netherlands football game.
Fan Forest Pinnacle was on great form too. Very nice visibility and a healthy amount of fish life. This is the dive just to swim out in the water column and admire the never ending ‘forests’ of sea fans. They are every where, small ones, huge ones, beaten up ones and perfect specimens. The fans come in varying colours of orange, from dark through to light hues. It is a truly impressive dive site.
The sunset dive was spectacular. After checking out the many lobsters in the cave we headed around the western side of the main rock. The water was a clear blue, the abundance of soft corals were glowing in the direct later afternoon sunshine. Fish darted everywhere. This was great Burma diving. I used this dive to scope out as much of the site as possible, finishing around the two tiny pinnacles that just break the surface more to the east of the site. We had two more dives the following morning so I wanted to find the best places.
Ending on a High
We opted for the ‘Eagles Nest’ dive site for the first morning dive. This is one of my favourite Burma dive sites. Descending on the far north east pinnacle there is a vast flat plateau around 24 metres depth. I like to dive really slowly here, searching in all the sea fans and corals, looking for pipefish, sea horses and harlequin shrimp. The second half of the dive there are four limestone pinnacles to ascend around. All are covered in fans and soft corals and enveloping anemones and home to various morays, scorpion fish and cowrie shells. Shallowing up for our safety stop a small cuttlefish entertained us in the clear shallow water.
Last dive in Burma and ‘Crayfish Cave’ once more. But before the cave we headed west to the huge archway that cuts through the rock. Time for a team photo. Then a few more photos through the cave. Exiting the cave we turned east this time exploring the many cracks and small caves in the limestone rock. We crossed the channel once more over to the four other pinnacles, this is always my favourite area to end the dives.
I was swimming a little away from the steep sloping reef heading towards the eastern pinnacle, taking my time and just looking out into the blue. A large familiar looking shape appeared out of the blue, swimming around the pinnacle, ascending from the depths. It took me a second or two to register what I was seeing. I fumbled with my signalling device, losing my composure some what, before hastily rapping on my tank like a madman as a juvenile whale shark swam towards us.
The whale shark swam by towards the surface, turned and swam back past us descending. As it disappeared out of sight I saw another large shape out to the east. I swam towards it to get a better look, it was some kind of Eagle Ray. I didn’t see the usual spot pattern of the most common eagles rays we see in the Andaman Sea, it looked more like a Javanese Cownose Ray. Unfortunately we could not get close enough for a better ID.
I heard Niko banging his tank being us, the whale shark must have been near his group. We headed in that direction for another encounter with the shark before ascending for our safety stop. The whale shark visited us one last time before we surfaced. Full marks to Steve, he had planned our route and we most certainly ended on a high. After our shaky start at Black Rock, good old Western Rocky had restored my faith in Burma diving, the trip had just got better and better since that unfortunate first day.
The beers at the Smile Bar in Kaw Thuang would taste all the better on this day, I thought as we cruised back to the mainland to complete the formalities for re-entering Thailand.
Making our way south from the Thai Myanmar boarder we still had a couple more dives before disembarking in Tap Lamu near Khao Lak. Niko and I pestered Steve a little to dive the Koh Prathong Wreck. I had never dived here before so was pretty keen to check it out. Steve let us have our way, thanks mate, and Koh Prathong it was.
The dive was good. Unfortunately the wreck has rolled over so now the hull faces upwards. Not the most interesting shape to dive along, but on one side it was still possible to explore a little of the super structure. Despite the young age of the wreck site there were plenty of fish in, on and around the wreck and all in all I think it was a good dive. If it had been crap then all blame would have been placed on Niko and I, but I think we pulled it off okay.
Final dive and onto one of the best dives in the Andaman Sea, the Boonsung Wreck. A great dive site, a great dive, lots of fish, the three large Cobias swimming around throughout the dive and a great end to our trip, enough said!
Diving on the Edge
It was, as it usually is, a bit of a come down heading back into Tap Lamu harbour. All in all I felt like the highs of the trip had more than made up for the lows. I’d been diving with a great team, always in high spirits above and below the water. Even at Black Rock they found things on the dive to turn the experience into a positive one. When you are diving somewhere as remote as Burma you really have to take the rough with the smooth. It is diving far away from any form of infrastructure, whether that be emergency services or national park marine reserves. The distances between dive sites can be vast. The currents and visibility unpredictable and ever changing, even during dives.
We had seen the dark side that still plagues the Mergui region, the blast fishing and other destructive fishing methods that leave scars on the sites. But we’d also seen a lot of resilient, beautiful coral reefs and at some sites a huge amount of fish life, more so than in the supposedly protected Thai marine parks. We had enjoyed each dive with no other divers from other boats in the water at the same time. There are not many places in the world where this is still possible.
Our vessel, the Deep Andaman Queen, had taken us on a great adventure. This is by far my boat of choice for Burma trips. The crew are one of the best around in the business. The Captain never fails to impress with the quality of his drop-ins and pick-ups, he really can place the ladder at the back of the boat directly into your hand once you surface, as Steve claims, no swimming required. Steve has vast experience in Burma and it shows on his trips, expertly aided by his dive staff, it was a real pleasure diving with Anne and Craig. And thanks Anne for the hat.