Mergui Archipelago, located in southernmost part of Myanmar (Burma), comprises over 800 beautiful islands. Due to its virtual isolation, the islands and surrounding seas are alive with an amazing diversity of flora & fauna and very beautiful underwater scenes and marine life.
The only human inhabitants in the area are sea gypsies, namely Salon in Myanmar. They live on boats during dry season and remain on land during rainy season. They still practice the same fishing and boat building techniques used for generation.
Being affectionate to sea, much skilful in swimming and diving, their ways of life and customs are so characteristic that traditional festival will be launched intending to attract international tourists as well as to operate marine eco-tourism around the islands in Archipelago.
Just north of the Surin Islands, an imaginary line divides Thai waters from Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago. Also known as the Archipelago, this immense area covers approximately 36,000 sp km (14,000 sq miles) and included roughly 800 islands. Diving here is still in its infancy, as the entire region has been off-limits to outsiders since the late 1940s. After several years of negotiation by Phuket dive operators, the archipelago was opened for tourism in 1997, yet much of the area remains unexplored.
The islands are similar to their Thai counterparts, with rugged, high-profile limestone and granite topography. One obvious difference, aside from the sheer number of Myanmar islands, is their unspoiled terrestrial scenery. Dense brush and rainforest cover most areas above the high-tide line, while vast stretches of mangroves and magnificent white-sand beaches are interspersed with rocky headlands, tidal creeks and a few freshwater rivers. Though several of the larger islands are home to small communities of Moken 'sea gypsies,' the vast majority are uninhabited and largely untouched by humans.
Underwater, this region offers scenic reefs, fascinating topography and prolific fish and invertebrate life. One of the main attractions for divers is the strong possibility of seeing big animals, especially sharks and rays. More dependable, however, is the tremendous variety of smaller fish and reef creatures, including many unusual species, some of which are rarely encountered in Thai waters. Add to this the allure of diving where few people have before and you've got all the ingredients for a top-notch dive destination. Considering the vast number of islands and reefs, many more dive sites are undoubtedly waiting to be discovered.
The diving here has tremendous potential, yet serious environmental problems threaten the reefs. Trawling and longline fishing have put heavy pressure on fish populations and the marine habitat in general, but the biggest threat is blast fishing with dynamite, which Myanmar has done little to discourage. You are likely to hear bombs go off at least once during a multi-day trip anywhere in the archipelago. Virtually all Mergui sites show at least some evidence of blast fishing, from craters of broken coral to piles of orange cup corals and even huge chunks of rock that have been blasted off vertical walls.
Despite the environmental threats, the diving in the Mergui is still excellent. Even at sites that are bombed regularly, soft corals, anemones and gorgonian fans usually survive undamaged, as do nudibranchs, cuttlefish, octopuses and other invertebrates. Fish that lack swim bladders (like sharks, rays and moray eels) also seem unaffected, unless the explosion is very close. Also, since many fish move from reef to reef, new fish seem to show up all the time.
In addition to dedicated drive trips, several companies offer eco-adventure trips in Mergui Archipelago, combining sailing, snorkeling, diving, beach-combing, island exploration and, in some cases, kayaking. It is too early to say what this area's long-term prospects are, but hopefully, increasing interest in ecotourism will provide enough incentive for the authorities to take action and protect the reefs before it is too late.