In Myanmar’s remote south lies a group of around 800 tropical islands. Here, the warm ocean waters, which flow onwards to Thailand’s famous Andaman destinations – Similan, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and so on – are home to white sandy beaches and colorful underwater marine life. The Mergui Archipelago is only sparsely populated, and mostly by Moken people. This community – sometimes known as Sea Gypsies – have lived their traditional ways of life in floating villages for centuries.
Much quieter than their Thai neighbors, this collection of islands shares many of their features, not least rich and diverse underwater life, so why haven’t they seen an influx of dive tourism on the same scale? Rumours of blast fishing and bad press about the detrimental effects it had on the waters around Mergui are perhaps to blame, but when we got the scoop from an insider, we learned there is much more to the story, not to mention a slow but steady change in perception at hand.
One of the first westerners to explore the Mergui Archipelago, John Williams, is the owner of Siam Dive n Sail in Phuket. He has written or contributed to four guides on diving in Thailand, Burma and the Andaman Islands, and runs the siamdivers.com and indodivers.com websites. Who better then to talk us through the facts about Myanmar’s Mergui? He begins by reminding us that until December 1997, the area was completely off limits to everyone – including Myanmar’s own citizens, and though Moken lived there, they were not considered to be citizens of Burma. The opening of the archipelago to outsiders began with divers.
Sick of what they felt was overcrowding in the Similan islands, John’s was one of three dive companies that began to explore the waters between Burma and Thailand. In 1990, when GPS became affordable, they started exploring an area in international territory that looked, on the charts, like a series of underwater banks at safe, diveable depths. John and his guests began diving in the area he and his colleagues dubbed the Burma Banks, which at the time was rich in sharks and other big fish. They began to be followed, and were eventually contacted by the Burmese Navy, who explained that while they were technically diving in international waters, they were officially in Burma’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Over talks to negotiate permission to continue diving in the Banks, John describes a misunderstanding that led to an opportunity: “We sat down with a top commander and he asked us straight out: ‘Why do you show no interest in visiting our islands?’ We were flabbergasted and realized how stupid we had been. They were hurt that we didn’t want to visit their country. So after a few laughs we said we would love to, and came to the financial arrangement that continues to this day.”
With the opening up of the zone to divers, word of the Mergui Archipelago got round, and in the late 1990’s it began to flourish – but with it came fishing. There was particular controversy around blast fishing, but according to John, the outrage here is misplaced. He admits that blast fishing got particularly bad in about 2005, but emphasizes that it didn’t cause as much damage as other activities. “For passengers, it triggers emotion when they hear a blast, usually surprise, then anger. However, the idea that it caused more damage than say, long-line fishing, dredging or using nets close to coral reefs is completely false. There are many types of destructive fishing practices. Long lining is what took the silvertip and nurse sharks out of the Burma Banks… and once they are gone, the chance that the population will replenish itself is almost zero. This saddens us all a lot more than any blast fishing did.”
So, while it wasn’t solely responsible for the dwindling populations of exotic and rare fish, blast fishing was putting the divers off. Indeed, John says, “The only reason it stopped was that people figured out they could make more money from tourism than from blast fishing.” Now, after almost ten years, during which time the area experienced yet more strife with a drastic coral bleaching incident in 2010, John says things are beginning to return to normal, and the waters of Mergui are now thriving once again. So, what can a diver expect to see there today? “The area has a huge amount of biodiversity,” explains John, “Though we don’t see sharks much any more, we do see many small unusual creatures we divers call ‘critters’.” Mergui is rich in in these tiny treasures: seahorses, ghost pipefish, nudibranchs, crinoids, sea slugs, sea stars, crabs, shrimps and anemones are all common and easily spotted. John claims that this type of “macro diving”, which is increasingly popular in Indonesia is comparable, and sometimes even better, in Mergui: “We have species of fish you only find in Mergui. The reefs are teeming with marine life, much more so than, say, Sulawesi or Hawaii or anywhere in the Caribbean.”
For John, though, it’s spotting the bigger creatures that make the memorable moments. “At Black Rock a few years ago,” he recalls, “I saw two manta rays swimming alongside a whale shark, and then a three-meter swordfish came darting in and scattered them. The swordfish stayed around all day. It’s very unusual to see a swordfish while diving, they are usually only found in deep ocean waters, and the chance of seeing one is almost zero. [This was] only the second one I have seen in my 40 years of diving.” In terms of other highlights, he continues, “In the fall we always see mating cuttlefish, and they make great photographic subjects. I have seen up to eight tiger tail seahorses on a single dive. This may not be as exciting as seeing sharks, manta rays or swordfish, but it’s equally unusual.”
As for the future of Mergui, now that its popularity is growing, John hopes that the government will continue encouraging ecotourism rather than large-scale development of resorts on the islands. “My wish would be for the whole area to be made a Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the direction of UNESCO or some other organization. This would make one of the largest protected areas in the world and protect Myanmar’s fisheries industry for centuries to come. It would also benefit Thailand’s fisheries and tourism economy, as [Thailand] would continue to be the ‘gateway’ to the Mergui Archipelago. The MPAs would establish and maintain breeding grounds for marine life.”
Despite having been open for 20 years (and almost 30 if you count John and his friends’ explorations of the Burma Banks), it’s only in the last few years that the Asian and the western media have caught onto the potential of Myanmar and Mergui. Now, however, with corrections to misconceptions about damaging fishing practices and with the coral bleaching in the past, it is very possibly the next big thing to take the diving world by storm.