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In the waters of Myanmar there is an archipelago that only now starts to open up to limited tourism: Mergui, ancient port of pirates and adventurers, is the name of the archipelago formed by approximately eight hundred islands, islets, rocks, green forests with white coral beaches. The sea is particularly rich and it has emerald green colors

Text and photographs by Luca Sonnino Sorisio

Nautica Magazine 433, Maggio 1998


Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar "Where the heck is the Mergui Archipelago?" I asked a friend of mine who was telling me about these islands, after his trip to Thailand. He told me that Burma had authorized some boats to sail in the waters of the beautiful and lonely archipelago, right above the border with Thailand, just a few months ago. Moved by curiosity - how could it be that unknown and wild islands still existed in this world? - I looked up in the atlas. Yes, it is true, there are many islands south of Burma's coastline; I was puzzled by the fact that I had not yet discovered them during my daydreaming when looking at maps. Then I find out why: since its independence in 1948, Burma remained isolated by its own political regime and since then very few obtained the visitor's visa. Today, Burma's new name is Myanmar: it is gradually opening up to tourism and the Mergui Archipelago, that has been a forbidden area for decades, is being visited by the first few sailing boats. Credit for this new destination is to be given to an agency in Phuket, the "South East Asia Liveaboards" that has negotiated for three years with Burmese authorities in order to obtain the authorization to sail in the archipelago.

A quick search on the World Wide Web and the web page of the agency appears on the screen (, with detailed information on the islands, the cruises and the boats.

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar Mergui was an important seaport between the 15th and 17th centuries. Buccaneers, bandits, merchants and adventurers originating form China, India and the Persian Gulf often stopped there. In fact, it was the point of arrival and departure of caravans that crossed the thin strip of land in Siam, the shortest route between the Indian Ocean and the Chinese Sea. The harbor, hard-fought by Siam and Burma was destroyed in 1760 and decline and abandonment followed thereafter. The Archipelago was also abandoned and since 1826, under British rule, it was deserted and wild, except for isolated raids for pearls or timber.

The Archipelago is formed by eight hundred islands, isles and rocks disseminated on a surface of 11 square miles. Most of the islands are covered with thick forests and white coral beaches and are deserted. The only dwellers are the Moken tribes, the wanderers of the Andaman Sea who live most of the year on their boats but are not fishermen: during the rainy season they live on land and live on subsistence crops. They collect mollusks, sea urchins and the fish that are trapped in the coral reef during the low tide. They dry seaweed and sell them to Chinese in exchange for merchandise and opium, which they smoke mixed with dry banana leaves with a water pipe that they pass to each other.

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar Moken are expert seamen: their boats are stable, light and capable of carrying several families and of standing against the storms of the Indian Ocean. Their boats are between 23 and 33 feet long, 5 feet wide and are built with different types of wood - such as palm wood - and no nails. The boats of the "South East Asia Liveaboards" that sail in the Archipelago are the "Crescent" and the "Gaea". The "Crescent is a 60-foot ketch for ten passengers with four cabins and is ideal for diving cruises. The "Gaea" is a 51-foot trimaran for eight passengers with four cabins and it is used for sailing around the islands with one daily dive.

Nautica chose the first boat. Below is the description of a cruise on board the "Crescent" as reported in the logbook.

1st day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar We leave from Phuket Island with a van in the early morning and drive for five hours toward the Burmese border on a road that has tarmac sections and gravel sections that are being renovated. In a few months works should be finished unless the road is damaged due to pouring rains. Along the road there are forests and patches of rubber tree plantations. In the afternoon we arrive at Ranong, on the border and on the southern coast of the fjord that separates Burma from Thailand. After crossing customs, we board on some long-tail boats, the typical thin and slender boats with the open- air propeller shaft connected to the engine that cross most Thai rivers. We disentangle ourselves from the other boats and from the long menacing propeller shaft and after twenty minutes of deafening navigation in the fjord we reach Kawthoung, on the Burmese coast, where the "Crescent" is waiting for us.

While the agency's representatives carry out the customs formalities, we anxiously go on board waiting to start sailing toward our first destination, the Island of St. Matthews. After twenty-three miles, we arrive in the middle of the night and we drop the anchor. From here we will sail the other 17 miles to reach Western Rocky Island.

2nd day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar First dive: the first 50 feet of water are cloudy but after it is clearer. There is little light because it remains trapped by the plankton in the surface layer of water. An enormous school of different fish covers the rocks. At the end of a long cave, full of lobsters, there are two sharks and nearby, in another cave, some stingrays slide across the compact wall of small fish that are disturbed by barracuda and small tunas. The coral reef contains red and orange corals and gorgonias. We sail at night so that during the day we have more time for diving. The captain uses the automatic pilot, the GPS and the radar at night. He chooses the waypoint on the GPS and on the British Admiralty Chart n. 216 (1:300.000); he looks for rocks and adjusts the heading on the automatic pilot (it is not interfaced with the GPS). When our course differs from the course indicated by the satellites, it has to be corrected. The plotter is useless. The radar is used to check the presence of other boats or ships on our course. Floating pieces of woods, barrels or wrecks may pose a problem but the captain assures us that with a bit of good luck and low speed - 6 knots - we will not have any damage.

3rd day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar We arrive in Silvertip Reef, a plateau in Western Burmese waters, at 55-65 feet below sea level. We sailed up to here to check whether the water conditions are better. We dive three times on the same spot: there are three white-fin sharks (Charcharinus Albimarginatus) that swim around us. The seabed is nothing special. With the macro lens I take a photograph of a trumpet fish that tries to unsuccessfully hide behind some corals. Around 2 p.m., a small whale (Balaenoptera Physalus) swims near the bow of the boat and revives up the atmosphere. The ocean is calm, a light breeze is blowing and there is some current. I have not yet understood how the current works here, whether it is influenced by the tide or by the monsoon. Most probably it is a combination of both and this makes it difficult to anticipate it. Big show at dinnertime: the lamps that lighten the table and that break the darkness of the Andaman Sea, attract the plankton which is devoured by the flying fish which in turn are followed by bigger fish causing a big confusion. At times, the water boils and we hear the noise of the fish clashing against the boat's topsides.

4th day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar Again we cruise at night toward North Twin Island. Here we dive in a bank on the western coast where the water is very troubled. It is a pity, because the seabed is beautiful. The coral grows on granite rocks, together with gorgonia and other seaflora. Here we see a shark and some stingrays, one of these rays is enormous and it is almost as big as a manta. A school of fish - maybe thirty or more, approximately five feet long - approach me. They look like sharks but I cannot distinguish them. They are not tunas because they are thinner and they seem to have some strays on the sides. Who knows! Cloudy water confuses my sight! After two hours of sailing we approach some nameless rocks that are famous for a diving spot called "in through the out door" because of a cave that has two openings on the two sides of the same rock.

We dive near the highest rock and swim around it. The sea is more transparent than usual and a dozen of squids swim over our heads. On the seabed there are several stingrays. Gauguin gorgonias (Melithaea Squamata) lushly grow on the rocks.

Horrible sight: few days ago, poachers threw a bomb in a small trench and now a layer of dead fish, including several barracuda, covers the seabed. Human foolishness has no limits: a massacre is perpetrated in order to easily collect a handful of fish when they come afloat or when diving with a mask. This absurd type of fishing that destroys whatever there is in the surroundings without differentiating between the fish species cannot be justified in any way. It is too easy to explain this behavior by saying that fishermen have to feed their children. In this way the future is not guaranteed. Sad and embittered we swim towards the end of the canyon where there is a cave with gray sharks that instantly disappear. The cave becomes smaller and I swim through the passage and across the rock, but when I find cloudier water on the other side I return to where I came from.

Back in the canyon, schools of different fish and of barracuda surround me and move continuously: they open up in a circle, close down and change direction or mix with others and then divide again as if they were playing an endless game.

These past days the water has been both cloudy and clear, both cold and warm: it is very strange for it is not the normal trend of the water in this area. Even in the Similan Islands that are further away, the water current does not have the usual pattern. Everyone blames El Niño for all abnormal occurrences on the planet. In this case an "up-welling" might have occurred, that is, deep ocean water, cold and rich in nutrients, has come to the surface generating and exceptional growth of phytoplankton and of filamentary algae like the ones that sometimes invade the Red Sea and after which it is named. Today we found the reddish stripes that I had seen in Sudan and that are caused by great concentrations of these algae. What might have caused the rising of deep seawater? Is it an unusual or a common phenomenon? Is it linked to El Niño? For now, all these theories and questions have no answer.

A fishing boat is moored near the "Crescent". There are four fishermen on the 20-foot boat; it took them one week to sail from Kawthoung to here. During their five-day stay they fish with fishing nets and traps. In the holds there are groupers and other typical coral reef fish. They feed on the dry filets of ray and of shark that are hanging all over the boat and which they also sell at the Kawthoung market.

In the late afternoon, we head towards Black Rock on a sea full of transparent and violet jellyfish with long tentacles. We should sail all night except for a few hours, when we will rest in a bay of Clara Island.

5th day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar After dawn we arrive at Black Rock, a dark rock spike that rises from not so deep waters.

This area is renowned for its sharks and abundant fish. Unfortunately its fame stroke a fatal blow to its fauna: few days ago, this area too was bombarded with dynamite. The sight is chilling and gloomy: dead fish cover the seabed. After three dives we plunge into sadness. This sight reminds me of the scene of the movie "Dances with wolves" when, during their migrations, the Sioux find dozens of dead skinned buffaloes left to rot in the prairie. What a waste! What a massacre for just a few fish! Maybe the main preys were the sharks for we have not seen any and yet there is ample food for them.

Notwithstanding the bombs, the rocks and the walls are full of gorgonias, of other sea flora and there are still many fish. We found cuttlefish, two octopuses in love, schools of barracuda, colored nudibranchiates, several moray eels and a rare mantis shrimp.

We head toward Little Torres, where we will spend the night at anchor. At sunset, the dolphins approach the boat and start playing under the bow, thus creating marvelous light effects due to the bioluminescence, the wonderful light that some types of plankton produce when stimulated. I had seen the same effect at the Galapagos Islands but whenever I see this incredible and surreal scene it strikes me: the profile of the cetaceans flowing together with the boat shines in the dark and they produce a shining wake. They play by crossing each other's trail in a joyful zigzag. They look like is unforgettable.

6th day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar We start our day with a dive in Northeast Little Torres, on a shoal that extends from a rock: here we find muddy waters. For lunch we anchor in a nice bay of Great Western Torres, where I go for a walk on land. The forest is very thick: it is impossible to open one's way without a machete. Ferns cover all surfaces that are not covered by branches and shrubs, there are tree trunks that are more than 30 feet high. The granite rocks are dark and polished. I hear very strange sounds coming from the deep forest; some bird cries are so loud that they sound like electrical alarms. I noticed the tracks of monkeys on the sand and most probably they also contribute to the sound track.

In the forests of the archipelago there are several animals. Elephants often swim from one island to the other. Years ago, someone saw an elephant going from Lampi island to the coast, by swimming two sections of five miles. They do not do it spontaneously, they are forced by their owners who take them to work on moving cut down trees. Even a Sumatra rhino (Didemocerus sumatrensis), found in some islands, was seen swimming for twenty miles, up to High Island. The tigers are found in the islands nearer to the coast because they walk on muddy shores during the low tide.

In the afternoon, we explore an area that surrounds some rocks in the northern part of the island. The visibility is quite bad but the place is interesting. There are enormous granite rocks that form a jungle of caves and small gorges full of life. There are many shells and nudibranchiates: I find a perfectly camouflaged cowrie (Phenacovolva rosea) on an orange gorgonia and a rare white nudibranchiate (Phyllodesmium magnum) under a rock, displaying strange outgrowths that move with the current. Inside a cave, a scorpion fish lays on a fan-like coral and it is camouflaged with the same colors of its temporary hammock.

After our dive, we return to the bay where we rest before heading southward. This is the northernmost spot of our tour: instead of going toward Mergui port as scheduled, where we should have flown to Kawthoung, we return to our point of departure due to the cancellation of our flight.

In the calm waters of the bay, we see some rays flying out of the water and spinning under our bow. Now it is easier for me to believe in the mysterious and rare flying jumps of the manta ray.

7th day

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar We see the rocks that are three miles north of the island of Great Swinton again, where there is the "in through the out door" rock with the sharks. As usual schools of fish screen the sunlight: there are many barracuda, king-fish, gray sharks and stingrays. The dead fish that were blasted off disappeared, only some bones remain. When we return to the surface we are surprised to see approximately fifteen Burmese fishing boats that are folding their nets. According to a Burmese law, commercial fishing is forbidden below the 11th parallel - here we are further south. These fishermen not only do not care a less about the law, but they also use bombs. I wonder whether something will be left here in a few years. Here, like elsewhere, the laws exist but are not enforced. A 100-foot multi-colored pinnacle full of corals is the beautiful scenery of our next dive. Later we anchor in the southern part of Great Swinton Island and we find a group of fishermen on the beach that are cooking holothurians in two big pans. They are very young and thanks to our Burmese interpreter, we understand that they are specialized in fishing these animals that are later dried and that are highly prized on the Chinese market. At sunset we go for a tour on the inflatable. We stay in the bay for the night. In the dark blue sky, the stars shine but the dark sea shines even more. Anywhere in the bay and even under our boat there are millions of tiny sparkles. The sea is so rich in plankton and so rich in life that a spray of water lights it up.

8th day

We hoist the sails and head toward McCarthy Island and Stewart Island, where we dive in the two southern tips. The seabed is multicolored. In a cave we find a shark that is over 13 feet long. We anchor in a bay of Mc Carthy for the last time, before starting our last night crossing toward Kawthoung. On the rocks, in front of the beach, three long white flags, left by some fishermen, flutter in the wind. Maybe they were put to reserve a fishing area, or maybe for religious reasons. who knows.


Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar

The trip

The fastest and most practical way to reach Phuket is by flying with Thai airline, the Thai national airline. The bus for Ranong, on the border, leaves from the diving center of South East Asia Liveaboards. Arrival in Kawthoung, Myanmar, is scheduled five hours later. Here, depending on the type of cruise, you may board either on the "Crescent" or on the "Gaea". For weekly cruises on the "Crescent" between Kawthoung and Mergui, there is a flight departing from Mergui every two weeks. The "Crescent" cruise includes three dives per day along the most exposed area of the Archipelago, touching South and North Twin Island, Black Rock, Little and Great Western Torres Island, Fletcher Island, Hayes Island, West and East Islet, Mackenzie Island, Sergeant Island, Elfinstone Island, Blundell e Tenasserim Island, Cabusa Island.

The boats

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar The "Crescent" is a 60-foot ketch with four cabins for 10 passengers and it is used for diving cruises. The double cabins are very comfortable; the fore cabin has four overlapped berths that are not as comfortable especially if much personal equipment is carried along. The "Gaea" is a 51-foot trimaran, with four cabins for eight passengers. Cruises include sailing, island discovery and one daily dive.

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar Onboard the "Crescent", the compressor is fitted aft where all diving equipment is stored. This area is also used as starting point for all dives.

The Visa

The agency requires the entry visa for Burma. It is advisable to send a photocopy of the passport to the agency before departure so that the necessary documents may be prepared. Take along four photographs and two photocopies of the passport. The cost of the visa is approximately USD 120.

The climate

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar The best season for cruising the archipelago goes from October to May. The water is calm and the average air and water temperature is approximately 82 F. In the rainy season the sea conditions worsen and sailing in exposed areas, where there are the best diving spots, is not possible. In the wet south-west monsoon season, the "Crescent" stays in Sulawesi.

What to wear and what to bring

Light clothing is advisable. It is important to know the water temperature before travelling. Depending on the year (as this year for example) wetsuit thickness should be 5/8". Electrical accessories such as flashes may be recharged on board with 110V current.

Mergui - Birmania - Myanmar For reservations and information, contact:

South East Asia Liveaboards
113/12, Song Roi Pee Road, 83150, Thailandia
Tel. +66/76/340406 - Fax +66/76/340586