Burma Trip Report.

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DocVikingo

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'Bout October of last year, I found myself yielding to that near universal hankering among divers--to get wet somewhere zanily off the beaten path. You know, the kind of location that withers the bank account & shoe-horns you into an economy class seat for days on end while crossing more time zones than a knock-off Rolex purchased in Encinada? Yesss.

Reports of diving among the over 1,000 islands of the Mergui Archipelago located in the extreme south of Myanmar (officially called Burma until 1989), where Burma and Thailand share the narrow peninsula Myanmar, had been blinking across my scuba radar screen for some years, flickering on-and-off with the inscrutable whims of the Myanmarese authorities. Seems the fusty bureaucrats in charge changed positions on permission to dive the nation’s waters faster than a child who has just discovered the light switch. Initially opening the southern waters of the Mergui Archipelago in Jan ’97 to a single live-aboard op, the area was extended to include the rest of the archipelago in the spring of that year. Gradually & haltingly, other boats based in Thailand were granted permission to enter, although reports of divers paying up & heading to Myanmar, only to find its marine borders closed to them by the time they arrived, were lamentably common.

Of late, however, having succumbed to profits to be made from visas fees, things changed, permission to dive much of the Mergui Archipelago & Burma Banks seems to have become comfortably predictable, although certain islands, e.g., Western Rocky, continue to open & close in a seemingly capricious fashion.

Given the above, on what basis could any reasonable diver decline?

Like most respectable remote dive location, this one can only be accessed by live-aboard. So, I feverishly sought out craft, itineraries & schedules to see what fit. The task actually proved relatively simple as among the large number of boats serving the greater Andaman Sea, only a few service the Burma Banks & Mergui Archipelago.

These include the 16 passenger Ocean Rover that spends only 3 days of its 7 day itinerary in this area, and the Faah Yai that takes a max of 10 divers & spends all of its dedicated 7 to 10 days itineraries diving Mayanarese waters. The Faah Yai is well-suited to do so given that it operates out of Ranong, a small & mostly dull (Well, actually, the karaoke bar across from the hotel had its attractions), but economically vibrant seaside village smack on the Thai-Mayanmar border. Craft like the Ocean Rover are berthed over 150 nautical miles to the south in Phuket, making for lots of wasted transit time if you want to get straight into Burma diving. As I primarily wanted to dive the Mergui, prefer boats that take only a limited number of divers & planned to charter the boat, this was a no-brainer.

The decision to work through SiamDive n’ Sail was lubricated by several factors. Top among them were its one stop shopping for Thai diving website, that major domo John Williams is co-author of Lonely Planet’s Diving & Snorkeling Thailand (Only game in town for Burma diving, but nonethless recommended) & a reputation among folks in the know as an agency of long-standing & high high reliability. Leaving aside my disquietude over the first name of John’s Thai partner, “Bent,” I pressed on.

Next step? Assembling a group of divers compatible both in skills & personality. Although a task only slightly more daunting than formulating a unified field theory or locating the Holy Grail, I saw little choice. Did I really want to risk spending an entire week of agonizing intimacy with persons whose buoyancy & social skills could be almost as lacking as mine? And who changed their T-shirts less often??

The search commenced among those with whom I had previously dived. Proffering excuses such as cost, onerous travel requirements & sick cats, I was able to corral just 4—John (AKA juan loco), Jackie (AKA Red), Dan (AKA T-Man), Marc (AKA marcos) & Jay (AKA nlavd). Actually, Juan didn’t fully meet the personality criteria, but he’s so good at fixing scuba gear, and only grouses a little when I cadge a smoke.

The remainder were selected from D2Ders based on their screen personas, i.e., extent of puerile & shameful conduct on the message board, e-mail discussion of their dive experience, and useful talents they could contribute. They were: Joe (AKA joebennie/Jo-Jo), because he gambles & speaks Swahili; Ivan (AKA hawn_diver/Kin Kava/Spicy Man), because I can stay at his house next time I go to Hawaii; Todd (AKA twang/doily boy), because he met the persona criteria in spades & Pat (AKA braciole), because he promised “soapy massages” & a commemorative D2D trip hat to all (BTW, he made good on it).

One of the more amazing aspects of this group was that despite a gap of about 8 months between getting an initial commitment & the trip, only a single member needed to be replaced. We don't need no steenking wafflers.

Looking around at my fellow passengers as we board the Thai Airways flight, I am overcome by the depressing realization that the combined body fat of the entire plane is less than mine alone. On a brighter note, I see few infants & children, and those I do see are happy & quiet, and manifest adorability scores that run off the index. Skipping the details, take my word for it that flying Thai is so unlike the treatment one receives from econony class on a US airline that you wonder if it is actually the same form of transportation.

Smugly moving to my aisle seat in an emergency exit row, I soon descry that I’m seated right next to the center bank of commodes. Appreciating that the occasional whiff of eau du toilet is far less pernicious than the risk of deep vein thrombosis, I settle in with mild resignation & comfortably spread out.

Soon the movies start, and I gleefully catch up on months of missed cinema. A possible gauge of the length of this trip is that between BWI & BKK they showed 8 full-length features. These included Harry Potter (engaging & amusing), Lord of the Rings (nonstop action & quite enjoyable), Kate & Leopold (eh), Shreck (for the 5th time—Aiieee), Orange County (skip it), Shipping News (Kevin Spacey fans shouldn’t miss this one) & my favorite of the lot, The Man Who Wasn’t. Those who can get with Billy Bob Thornton in a Cohen brother’s movie shot in B&W will love this number. Thought his only other role to date that was better was in Sling Blade. Anyway, watching these fills up less than half of the flight time, so I fritter away the remainder reading and knoshing from my bottles of hypnotics & tranquilizers.

Arriving at BKK after midnight, with a flight out at 7:40AM, I stayed at a hotel at the airport. There are a number of choices, and using internet rates you can secure ordinary room (e.g., Amari Airport) for about $40 that includes airport transfers, A/C, plenty of hot water, breakfast, taxes & service charge, if not much brightness or charm, or many amenities. A little farther toward town is the attractive Sofitel Central Plaza, running about $80-$115/night for a single depending upon quality.

Speaking of taxes & service charge, these are routinely assessed at all hotels & many restaurants. The former is a steady 10%, while the latter varies between 7%-10%. Inquire if quoted rates include these. If they don’t, then expect a final bill that is 17-20% higher. Over the course of a month’s vacation, these add up.

I might note that the BKK international airport is modern, fully equipped, comfortable & efficient. Customs & immigration are smooth & non-threatening. Tourism is Thailand’s number one source of income, and they do it very well. Hotels are obsessive are about getting you around in time, and even at my mid-scale airport hotel I was met with a sign, a wake up call & knock at the given hour, and a bellperson waiting outside of my room when I exited.

One whimsical thing about the BKK airport is that it’s part of a golf course, or vice-versa. Taxiing along the runway, you’ll see duffers in carts at small, railroad crossing-type gates, waiting for the plane to pass so that they can scurry on to the next hole. Wonder what the penalty is for hitting into an aircraft?

If you decide to stay in town, be aware that BKK is choked with traffic, and has a nightmarish rush hour, so you’ll need to leave plenty of travel time. Also, don’t sign up for any transportation inside of the airport. Nice, A/C metered taxis are available right outside the door, and will run you anywhere from $5 to $8 dollars depending upon how deep into town you are going.

The traveler to Thailand has available a surprising number of choices of airlines, including. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Korean, Thai, China and the newest and often cheapest, EVA. Shop around—it’s less costly than you might think. Some folks caught an EVA flight from LAX for $750. All flights make a stop from the US, such as Tokyo, Seoul, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore. If you can’t hack the better part of two days of non-stop traveling, do a stop over. I’ve been to all of these cities, and recommend either Tokyo or Hong Kong, although Singapore has a super aviary. You can also get there via major European cities (Frankfort is popular), but this typically will cost you more.

The Faah Yai leaves out of Ranong, about a 50 minute flight from Bangkok, or a rough 5+ hour van ride from Phuket, hqs of Siam Dive n’ Sail. I opted to fly from BKK on Phuket Airlines, who recently took over the route from Bangkok Air. One flight daily, in the early morning. It was a very spacious & new aircraft, with typically ultra-courteous Thai service.

Let’s talk about those delightful Thai manners for a minute. The unrelenting gentleness, deference, politeness, softness & helpfulness of the bulk of Thai people, and most decidedly of those in the tourist industry, comes as a big shock to many Occidentals who are used to surlier fare. In fact, this country may be the ideal venue for an immersion therapy regimen for that most unseemly behavioral syndrome, “Ugly American Disorder.” In Thailand, raising your voice, getting angry & carrying one guarantees that nothing will be resolved. Such conduct is so foreign here that people simply “sign off.” As they have no active response in their social repertoire, they go into a kind of suspended animation, occasionally preceded by a slightly embarrassed smile or chuckle. What does work in solving problems is patient, polite persistence. Is this a behavior modification program made in heaven or what?

In Ranong, expect to be found a curiosity (especially if your are large) & don’t expect much English to be spoken outside of your hotel. Come to think of it, anticipate the same in your hotel. This is a bustling regional economic & government center—tourists primarily just pass through on their way to other destinations, such as Burma, the Andaman Club & the Gold Coast Resort. Exploration of the place is pretty much over after you’ve seen the hot springs (not very inviting in 95 degree/95% humidity weather), the waterfall (Kauai, fear not) & “Grassy Knoll,” a small knob covered with grass instead of scrub jungle, a rarity of which they are oddly proud. You can rent a driver or moped & see it all in half a day.

There is a range of hotels, but at the current prices it makes little sense to stay at less than one of the two best. On the water & closest to the boat dock is the Jansom Beach Resort, with nice views. I stayed in town about half an hour away, at the Royal Princess, in a safe but crummy neighborhood. The internet price was right at about $55/night (including tax, service charge & full breakfast) for a spotlessly clean, spacious deluxe room with TV, phone, office & sitting areas, and solid A/C. As I arrived before any of the others, I had a day to catch up with times zones.

Following the above described exploring and a stroll through the central market & a pharmacy (Prescription? Vat’s a prescription, bubbie? Only thing not on the shelves are the major league stimulants, and this only recently due to an abuse epidemic), I returned to the hotel for a massage. The two-hour Thai number sounded sweet, and indeed it was. It involved being trod upon, kicked & stretched in anatomically imposible positons by a diminutive but nonetheless formidable woman who giggled and repeated, “You King Kong.” After several hours of this, I felt ever so much refreshed. And, I felt even better when I settled up--$11 including a 30% tip. Of course, there was no “soapy massage” action at the hotel, but right across the street there was. On the return trip several members of the group spoke highly of its services, although they costed out well above $11. Other prices around town were $0.90 for a pack of major brand smokes, $0.08 for bottled water, $1.00/hour for internet access, and $0.60 for an icy glass of that sublime libation, Thai iced coffee. A bone-jarring brew mellowed to perfection corn syrup & sweetened condensed milk. God, I'm gonna miss that.

Finally the deposits of various cars, vans & planes come together and we are 11; 10 D2Ders & John Williams, co-owner of Siam Dive n’ Sail.

First stop is Thai Immigration & Customs, which seems a bit weird as the ink is barely dry on my entry visa from just a day ago. But, then, I am leaving the country, even if only on a boat. Along the road I see a billboard, all in Thai, of course, that is obviously a public health advisory regarding elephantiasis. I suspect that many of you have seen pictures of persons with this mostly tropical disease, their massively enlarged legs festooned with swollen folds of skin. Given that physicians in the US aren’t much concerned with this disease as a public health menace, it catches my eye & arouses my sympathy.

Anyway, Braciole, Jo-Jo & Twang tone down their near continuous “Yo, Vinny” routine long enough that we can quickly & painlessly slip through the process and are soon on the 1/2 hour drive to the dock.

The Faah Yai (Big Sky), a wooden craft that served as a private yacht until conversion in about 1997, has relatively roomy cabins by live-aboard standards. These are a mix of twin bunks & double below/bunk above arrangements. Each has an actual flush toilet as opposed to a marine head, shower & sink with lots of hot water, and individual A/C. The latter is a near necessity in the hot months of Mar-Oct, and some units were decidedly more vigorous than others. Be sure to inquire about yours before accepting a room assignment. There is substantial space below the bottom bed, plus a cabinet with several shelves above. Each berth has at least one powerful & individually controlled reading lights, and mine had two.

The main deck rooms have large windows that slide open, while those below have only modest hatch openings. Below decks cabins get septic tank odor & engine noise, although the boat motors little at night. Cabin #4 leaked during a heavy rainstorm, as did the Master Cabin on the main deck. Room #3 seemed the most squared away of the lot, and I actually found it quite comfortable.

The twin screws will moves you along at 8-12 knots, depending on the current, and run reliably & smoothly.

AL 80s are filled in place at your dedicated dive station, which comes with a plastic milk crate underneath for gear storage. To refill all cylinders takes about 1 ½-2 hours. The crew has the commendable habit of coming back around to top off cooled hot fills when time permits, and you can pretty much count on 3,000PSI. Lamentably, there is no nitrox. The dive profiles & schedule are ideally suited for it.

There is a dry, carpeted camera table, but no dedicated rinse bucket. However, there are several handy hoses pumping hot water on the dive platform. The gear up & dive decks are on the smallish side, but the mostly unhurried giant stride entries & shuttles via two inflatables keep things mellow. The decks here & in other places get quite slippery when wet, and several of our group took painful falls-watch your step.

Expect to get 5 dives a day during the days that you are not moving to or from port. The boat's captain did a few dives with us, and, if you could keep up with him, he often located all manner of cool critters. Most of the time, however, our group of experienced divers was left to plan & execute its own dives, and this suited everyone just fine. It was preferred that you enter the water with another diver, but solo after that was not a problem--just ask nlavd.

The Captain, Alain, an ex-pat originally from NE France, has been in charge since the conversion. He worked a 3-day live-aboard out of Phuket for the previous 7 years. His Thai wife, Sunan, serves very ably in the galley, and even our most intimidating trenchermen, such as King Kava, stayed well fed. Typically, b’fast, consisting of eggs, bacon, ham or sausage, cereal, toast & assorted fruits, would come after the first morning dive. Lunch was after the third dive, and dinner before or after the night dive. Not surprisingly, these meals are mostly Thai-style, and can include toothsome curries of chicken, shrimp, fish or meat with mixed vegetables. Expect to see a salad of some type & a large platter of fresh, sweet fruit like pineapple & watermelon. Sunan usually goes easy on the fish sauce, spices & hot stuff, so those who fancy genuine, conflagratory Thai cuisine, as do Spicy Man & myself, can doctor their dishes or go down & share meals with the crew. As for the latter, all I can is, “Wha-wha-water.” Damn, but that’s fine dining. Snacks are occasionally served between dives. Special diets can be accommodated with advanced notice. All meals are served buffet-style in the top deck salon which, while comfortable enough, was sorely in need of an icemaker, head & greater than a 2-slice toaster.

Bottled water (recommended), coffee, tea & plastic liters of assorted soft drinks are always available & free, while canned beverages, including beer, incur a charge of $2. A limited selection of ordinary wine is available, but if you want hard spirits, bring your own. Cheap & somewhat rough Thai & Burmese rum & whiskey can be bought at immigration stops. Marcus kindly laid in a selection of these, and folks resorted to them only in desperation after all other liquor had disappeared from the boat. For me, the high points on the libation scene were the Champagne brought by Jo-Jo, and King Kava’s top shelf tequila (Along with anchovies, I'd kill for it). Gracious of them to do so. Needless to say, the life span of these bottles was just slightly below the measurement capabilities of the Smithsonian Museum’s section on short-lived phenomena.

With a fresh bunch of orchids tied to the prow, Buddhist prayer or two, and burst of firecrackers (red, of course, for good luck), we motor off to Burmese immigration/customs about 15 minutes up the coast at Kaw Thoung. A small port city of unsurpassed charmlessness, and home to the fabulous Honey Bear Hotel and Moby Dick’s Bar & Grill, it garnered a considerable accolade during our brief stop. After a post-brew visit to the water closet at the local saloon, Jo-Jo bestowed the coveted “Most Squalid Squatter Citation.” A title previously held a by a home-distilled bar near Mombassa, this is to be considered a most unique recognition.

Back on the boat, a local Burmese official in civvies, who seemed more interested in filching snacks & beers than checking passports, left that chore to his very nattily uniformed, but shoeless, functionary. After collecting a fee $140 from each of us (nothing but mint condition greenbacks accepted, ala Ecudaor & some other countries), they happily departed, taking our passports. This caused considerable consternation among some of the group, but is standard policy for tourists entering Burma. When we got them back upon our return, they contained an impressive 3/4 page stamp from the Republic of Myanmar.

The month of May being the start of the rainy season, this trip was a slight risk weatherwise. It, as expected, was hot as hades, but we luckily were blessed with flat seas, lots of sun, gentle breezes & only a couple of passing rainstorms.

Given its approximately 14,000 sq. miles & 800 islands, not surprisingly the Mergui Archipelago (AKA Myeik Archipelago) has many dive sites, with more to be discovered. To well explore even just the top sites would require several trips. Below is a smattering of hopefully representative sites on our itinerary.

Be advised that you’ll have current & surge on most dives. Slack tide is your best bet for sites not having much in the way of a lee side. Some locations are just about undiveable during max tidal change. The captain will do his best to work around this, but plan on increased air consumption & even hand-over-hand locomotion on a number of dives.

Water temps were a cozy 84 degrees plus/minus a degree much of the time, but there were definite thermoclines & more notably currents of wildly different temps. I’ve never been to a location where mixing currents changed conditions more dramatically & frequently. Temps could vary by 7-10 degrees up or down a number of times within less than 10’, and this without changing depth. The direction of current could also alter unpredictably.

Vis is also quite variable, and don’t expect Caribbean clarity. It ranges from less than 10’ to more than 80’, averaging about 40’-60’. While it’s nice to be able to see for miles, remember that pesky plankton produces prolific marine life.

04/24/02: The Three Stooges (AKA Three Islets; In Through the Out Door; Could also call it “The 60s”)

Five dives at this site:

Average Depth: 60’
Average Time: 60”
Average Vis: 60’

After comfortably motoring into the night, we awake about 50-55 miles northwest of Kawthoung (AKA Victoria Point, our crossing into Burma), jumping out of (or into as the case may be) our skins to hit the first dive of the trip. Composed of three rocks extending well above sea level, we head for the main island, home to an unusual resident population of gray reef sharks. Extending from about 70’ below to 50’ above the surface, this sheer rock formation opens to a steep-sided canyon with a depth of about 55’. It eventually narrows to a tunnel that can have considerable current/surge.

A powder blue Burmese sky peers down between a wide cleft in the islet, watching us round the jutting breast of limestone and enter. As we do, it illuminates a parade of reef sharks in the 7’-8’ range. Muscular, sleek & shiny, they are rightfully unperturbed as we pass in gaseous fits & starts, like so many compressed air-driven bathtub toys. With massive chests, pointed snouts, and long upper tail fins raked at a jaunty angle, they impress as the Aristotelian perfect form of “sharkness.” None of that frou-frou blunting of snout & flabby, matte-finish flesh that characterizes those tawny nurse sharks at the other end.

With the current & surge in our favor, we giddily shoot in a herky-jerky trajectory to the outside. A turn to the left and black, white and black & white crinoids and urchins festoon the gradually slanting, rocky slope. In the surge, they appear as so many dancers in formal wear, swaying to the incessant strains of grazing parrotfish. Clusters of drab barnacles, some dead and inhabited by tiny red blotched blennies, eye the gala like wallflowers at a prom.

Despite its attractiveness & variety, 5 dives is probably at least one too many, and a number of the group were disappointed when we did it again the following morning.

04/25/02: Rocky I & Rocky II

Ave Depth: 55’
Ave Time: 60”

Moving north, we do 3 dives in this area. What I remember most vividly is the outrageous spread of anemones at Rocky I. Flung as far as the eye could see, and swaying vigorously in the stiff current, were Merten’s, magnificent, knob-edged & bulb anemones, ranging from gray through violent green to a most unusual rusty-pink color. They formed the prettiest such field I have yet seen. Of course, skunk, Clark’s, western & tomato anemonefish frenetically flitted among their arms, zealously guarding their turf.

On Rocky II, where the vis bit the root big time, I contented myself by observing mealtime in a branching crinoid grove. As a plethora of passing plankton quickly amassed on their bristly arms, the branches drew in, one at a time, to the eager food groove. Quickly cleaned, they returned to their outstretched position. Like some dizzying carnival ride, the process was continuously repeated. Mesmerizing.

Black Rock (~ 100 miles NNW of Kawthoung; 8 dives)

Avg Depth: 75’ (45’-130’)
Avg Time: 48” (48”- 61”)
Avg Vis: 50’ (20’-80’)

On the motor over, we spot a cavorting Minke whale, identifiable in part by a breach that shows only back & dorsal fin, not a tail. Gotta love the open ocean--just never know what might happen along.

One of the biggies on this itinerary, Black Rock offers the opportunity to dive deep in an area where sites generally do not run deep or have little of interest at depth. Starting from a gradually sloping sandy bottom at about 100’, sheer rock plates rise to ~ 40' above the water’s surface. You can easily get beyond recreational limits, although I saw no reason to do so. One needs to keep in mind that the nearest chamber is back in Phuket, and there is no air evacuation system nor any Coast Guard or naval vessels available for transport. If you take a hit, it could be a couple of days before you get recompressed, and a couple of years before your dive buddies stop whining. Also, the currents here can be quite strong, including changeable up & down-wellings, and this requires that the diver both have the skills to deal with them & pay close attention to depth.

The site had been the location of daily manta sightings for months, but in the best “You should have been here yesterday” form, they apparently hatted up the previous week. Undeniably a slight bit disappointed, we had to amuse ourselves with the marine consolation prizes described below.

Like a Satanic finger, a dark, stark, blunt needle of rock breaks the otherwise featureless expanse of ocean. Acting like a magnet for life far & wide, it draws even us. Down below, seemingly endless aggregations of yellow-band, twinstripe and vibrantly colored yellowback fusiliers run at every conceivable angle. Not to be outdone, jewel fairy basslets in uncountable numbers emit flashes of bright orange as the both flit among the others and form their own schools. Eventually, I avert my gaze from this restless, vertiginous swirl lest I begin to dizzy.

Switching to small fissures, am I treated to the comical carryings-on of orderly rows of Durbin dancing shrimp. Like gay crustacean conga lines, upturned noses to the fore & bustle-like protrusions to the rear, they continually step-step-step-step-step-stop, step-step-step-step-step-stop to the percussion of orchestras of mantis shrimp.

Down deep, creatures of a much larger & more sedentary nature stake out their territory. At 125’, the unmistakable leopard-like spots of a pair of zebra shark resolve themselves against the lighter, uniform sand bottom. A caudal fin nearly as long as its body gives an impression of motion even when at rest. Seemingly an egregious misnomer, the name makes more sense upon seeing juvenile, all chocolate brown flanks broken into irregular saddles by thin, yellowish vertical bars. Approached too closely by a photographer, with the slightest flick of the outrageous tail they languidly move on.

Meanwhile, some in the group are being surprised by visits from a small whaleshark, while others observe a marlin in hues of blue so subtle in gradation & violently brilliant that they seem to defy the laws of physics. The latter shows up on another dive as well, no less impressive than previously.

Of course, no trip to this area would be complete without seeing some of those enormously venomous banded sea snakes, and see them we did, including one rather large one. While it always seems that I should be more concerned about their presence, I simply can’t work up a sense of fear as they are so uninterested in divers & generally implacable. They just swim along looking for morsels to eat, and will go right around if you get in the way. In Fiji, at the DM’s invitation, I put my hand gently around the body of one as it swam by. It never responded in any way, not even to look at me or change course. I understand that you really have to provoke them to get a rise out of ‘em, but I for one would not suggesting pushing your luck.

One of the highlights of the diving in this region are the cuttlefish, and you are likely to see some at least once on every dive, and often more. They were mating during our trip, and their milky white, gelatinous eggs sacs could be seen hanging from various handy points of attachment. These creatures can be approached very closely without disturbing them, and the males are much more concerned about the inevitable rival suitors waiting in the wings than about you. In a gesture that is easy to anthropomorphise, the male will place a tentacle upon the female as he accompanies her. As the sexual excitement of the pair builds, the female turns a reddish-brown & places her tentacles into a point in front of her head, while the male develops an intense coloration with a zebra pattern. My favorite alteration at these times is the development of pulsating patterns of flourescence around the body between it and the marginal fin. It looks ever so much like the lights on the flying saucers seen in old grade B science fiction movies.

To finish up the diving of Black Rock, I must mention one of the most unusual sightings of the trip, which I of course missed. Seems that Nlavd, wang, Capt Alain & Jo-Jo happened upon a very substantial bowmouth guitarfish, a most odd looking creature resembling a cross between a shark & a ray. Alain commented that he only sees them about once every couple of years. That’s okay, guys, I forgive you--this time.

Also in attendance were Oriental sweetlips with labia that could suck a dime through a keyhole. Somehow their thick mouths and covering of stripes, spots & splashes of bright yellow coloration always make think of circus clowns. And, if they are the clowns, then the passing emperor snappers, with high backs & regal coats of rich mahogany bars over white background, are the ringmasters.

Working my way back toward the surface, I am reminded that sometimes even the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Incited by tuxedoed crinoids & tangoing shrimp, a sea cucumber sheds its drab garb for something with more panache. Ordinarily a torpid janitor of the reef, now with black bodied tentacles & immaculate white feet fully extended it suavely grazes hors douvers from a sandy platter. Afraid to miss the party, a normally reticent pearlfish emerges from its bowels and hangs at the side like a silver-crowned walking stick. With his spats & cane, this gentleman is a marine Mr. Natural in high dress.

Northeast Little Torres Island (~125 miles NNW of Kawthaung; 30-130’; night dive)

Depth: 40’
Time: 55”
Vis: 50’

I realize with a trace of melancholy that we are now as far out as we’re going to go. The sites after this are on the return.

Hyped as having fields of soft coral & sea fans, I didn’t find squat in this regard. However, the glorious spreads of hard coral were amongst the nicest I’ve seen anywhere. Pristine patches of leafy crater, fine table, double table, staghorn, helmet, maze, encrusting sheet & lobed corals extend for 60’ at a stretch, some in vibrant shades of green. Without blemish or broken edge or branch, I feel privileged to be diving it & and take extra care not to contact anything.

On this dive, as on others, I see one of those terminally endearing little cube boxfish. School bus yellow & spattered with black dots, its ET-like eyes & tiny fins protrude from openings in a body of solidly fused scales.

Beyond him, cemented in perpetuity to the ever-present rocks, zig-zag oysters, with the grinning rictus of a demented jack-o'-lantern, release their eggs & sperm. As plumes of smoke in a zephyr, the gametes gently mix in the freshening tide.

Stewart Island (~50 miles NW of Kawthaung)

Depth: 64”
Time: 55”
Vis: 15’

With reduced vis & a seemingly rather uninteresting nature, I figure I’d better work this site for those little delights that are always there but often overlooked when sharks, rays, marlin, cuttlefish and all manner of flashier creatures are grabbing one’s attention. I am not disappointed.

Within the protective branches of table coral, tucked away from the prying eyes & menacing maws of predators, bicolor & subtly hued blue-green pullers, two-bar & three-spot damsels, and lovely black-and-white snapper juveniles feed on small invertebrates. Also within the coral are a pair of longnose filefish. Their metallic, turquoise skin & golden spots flash as their gracile snouts daintily snip polyps from skeletal chalices.

On the shallow, sandy bottom, adult & juvenile rockmover wrasse demonstrate an impressive mastery of camouflage. Not only do poorly defined fins blur their edges & spotted bodies disguise their eyes, but also they lazily float back & forth in the surge, looking quite like an errant clump of algae.

When the vis is poor, what better to watch than the reliably cooperative nudibrach? At least 6-8 varieties.

High Rock (~40 miles NW of Kawthaung; 0-100’)

Depth: 85’
Time: 42’
Vis: 50’

Rising above the surface, this gently swelling muffin of dark rock topped with a tree reminds me of an impromptu birthday surprise. Like a chocolate cupcake bearing a lone candle, it is also the final dive of the Burma Bash. Soon, our group will disband, variously headed to other venues such as the magnificent Angkor Wat, diving in other locales like the Similans & Cambodia, or home.

In a fitting farewell, and almost as if to entice us back at a future date, the Andaman Sea offers up two of its finest denizens. With a yellow tigertail seahorse to the left, and a harlequin ghost pipefish to the right, the overwhelmed photographers in our group don’t know where to turn first.

For me, unencumbered by picture-making contraptions, it’s a no-brainer. Finding a comfortable place among the rocks, I settle in, take out my magnifying glass & spend my remaining air riveted to the ineffably beautiful, lacy pipefish. It is with a profound sense of serenity & completeness that I …..

Leave only bubbles,
Kill only time,
Take only memories.

DocVikingo
 

SunshineFish

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DocV - what a report! Thank you - I felt like I was almost there with you.

Sandy
 

DivingGal

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What a great report. I agree with Sunshinefish (see roomie I knew we'd think alike) I felt I was right there with you.


Glad to have you back with us.
 

jamespitt

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hey DV,
thank you for the great report.
i had a very interesting time in Ranong last year at Thai New years, ie. the water festival, where locals take great pleasure in drenching the next available tourist. now because ranong is a pretty dead area for backpackers, we were a welcome target for the locals. unfortunately this was also the day where we were supposed to make the quick dash across to Victoria Point, burma, to renew our thai visas.
i am sure pitching up at customs drenched in water and powder wasnt the best way to try get out of paying a fine for overstaying 3 days.
we then had to catch a longtail across to the rickety customs house on stilts over the water. there they gave us huge flack for damaged dollars and had to pay with a 50 which caused huge trouble. then on the way back, we got caught in one of the most violent storms i have been in. the sky went an ominous shade of yellow and then started to bucket down. with no canopy and no one around us, our engine proceeded to fail. we then had to start bailing water out. we could not see any land ahead or behind us. luckily a boat came past us and managed to tow us across back to thailand.
of course the sun then came out and the water throwing proceeded, and we got drenched again before going back to customs.

there are some great national parks close to ranong like khoa sok. we saw a rafflesia plant there, its the largest flower in the world (1 meter across??)and smells like an open sewer. oh yeah, we also had to go to ranong to catch a boat to ko chang island. no diving though but there was a divshop that did trips to the mergui arch.

thanks again for the descriptive report.
cheers,
James
 
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DocVikingo

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Dear Don, SunshineFish, DivingGal, Uncle Pug & James,

Thank you all for your very kind comments.

I do appreciate them.

DocVikingo
 

Uncle Pug

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DocV you mentioned using a magnifying glass...

I haven't had much luck as it seems the refractive index of the glass(?) is close to that of the water...

What are you using and how effective is it.
 

keralucu

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I enjoyed it very much - are you going to publish that somewhere? Your descriptions are fantastic.

I also enjoyed reading your take on Thailand, Thai Airways and the Thai people :) Are you sure you're not getting paid by the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) to promote our lovely country?

I was hoping to meet up with you while you were here, but from the looks of it, you kept yourselves very busy. Which other countries did you visit? And did you do Similans as well?

Thanks for a great story-telling!
 

Welshman

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Doc

Very good report and you have the right insight into the Thai people. There are always exceptions which prove the rule but in Thailand if you behave with courtesy it will be reciprocated in spades.

Regards
 
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