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Andaman adventure

by Linda Dunk and Hilary Driscoll

Reproduced from in focus 67 (February 2000)

Thailand


Imagine how you'd feel if your first dive on a much anticipated trip to Thailand and the Burma Banks was going to start at 'Richelieu Rock', quoted recently by the legendary underwater cameraman Peter Scoones as being his top world dive site!

That was what we were contemplating over our early morning coffee as the sun came up on the back deck of MY Pelagian (ex Fantasea II), the newly refitted top-class dive charter boat that was to be our luxurious home for the next ten days of diving and underwater photography.

We had arrived from London jet-lagged and disoriented at the Patong Beach Holiday Inn on the evening of the 22 nd of March, only to be confronted with the immediate need to complete immigration formalities for entry into Myonmar (Burma). Thankfully the air conditioning counteracted the thirty-seven degrees of sweltering heat, and the bonus for our eff orts was a 'lie-in' the following morning!

A late afternoon embarkation that next day was followed by a night passage, and now here we were, anchored at dawn some little way off this renowned dive site.

Richelieu Rock is four and a half miles south of the border with Myanmar, 55 miles west of Ranong, and is located in 38m water. It breaks the surface at low water, and is surrounded by several other pinnacles, which reach up to about 10 m below the surface. Good news spreads fast, and it is rapidly becoming a very popular dive site, so we were in the company of several other dive boats. The rock is also used for fishing by local boats, and quite a bit of debris (old fishing nets and cages, line, bags of stones used for anchoring) is apparent underwater.

The visibility at this site can be variable, usually ranging from 18-25 m, but when we were there, it was about 12-15m. We also noted a great deal of surge down to about 13 metres making for challenging photographic conditions.
Richelieu's great advantage is the huge proliferation of sea-life in its environs - just about everything can be found there. Frequently seen are whale sharks (not when we were there), stingrays, sand sharks, and leopard sharks.
The pinnacles are covered in barrel sponges, sea fans, soft corals, and hard corals and in places are carpeted with anemones. Shoals of snapper, barracuda, silversides and jacks swirl around, and batfish, trigger fish (titan and Picasso) cornet fish, sea horses, nuclibranchs (etc., etc.!) are in attendance. Probably the biggest problem for still photographers is deciding which lens to use, such is the range of subject choice, and macro fans would do well to keep a Nikonos V with a wide-angle lens in the BC pocket, just in case those whole sharks do put in an appearance! Those shooting video certainly have the practical advantage here.

The rock was to epitomise diving in the Andaman area in general, typified by rocky islands whose submerged cliffs, slopes and pinnacles are home to a myriad of underwater life, and whose waters tend to be nutrient-rich (hence the big stuff and the reduced visibility) and subject to some ferocious currents.

After five - six dives, we left Richelieu and entered Burmese waters, completing formalities during an evening monsoon downpour at the small port of Kowthaung, situated on a rather dirty looking and pungent river. For those with long memories, the 'old' British name of Kawthaung was Victoria Point. The surrounding hills were memorable for what appeared to be illuminated temples. A young and very charming Burmese guide joined us at this point for the next stage of the trip to the Mergui archipelago and the Burma banks.

The 'Three Stooges', located about sixty miles west of Kawthoung, were to be our diving hosts for the next two days, and comprise three rocks, the largest rising some 30 m above sea level, and the smaller ones some 24 m, connected by underwater reefs. The middle rock, the largest, has a swim-through and cave, often home to nurse sharks. Underwater the boulders and rocks meet the flat sandy bottom at about 27 m.

The Stooges form a most interesting dive site, with schooling squid, barracuda, numerous mating cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, mantis shrimps, giant sized painted rock lobsters, a variety of morays (often two and three in the same hole at the same time), stonef ish, sea horses, hawkf ish (both brown and long nosed varieties), banded coral shrimps and legions of marching prawns in crevices. Other subjects include red and purple soft corals, large red fan corals, green and yellow sponges, wonderful crinoids in all sorts of all colours, giant purple mantled anemones with their resident anemone fish, and carpet anemones inhabited by porcelain crabs. Shoals of fish of all varieties are seen whichever way you look! A macro photographer's paradise, which is just as well, because the visibility was reminiscent of British diving on one or two occasions!

Sadly our first dive at this marvellous location was shockingly marred by the sound of an underwater explosion that could only have been reef dynamiting. Apparently this still goes on in Myonmar, though happily not so much in Thailand. It is said that Thai women, in the manner of antiquity, withheld their favours in order to persuade their husbands that this practice should stop forthwith! Hooray for girl power!

Steam westward as we next did about 100 miles from the Burmese mainland, and (it helps to have GPS) you will find yourself over the Burma Banks, where the seabed rises in several places to between 35 and 15 m from the surface. These seamounts attract the large pelogics, and many ports of them are still undived.

'New Bank' wasa shallow area located by our skipper Matthew Hedrick, and it was decided we should be the first to dive it and see what it had to offer. The reef edge was at 30 m, patrolled by siivertip sharks. The bank itself was very flat at about 25-30 m, with very few coral heads or outcrops, but numerous small fish, sponges anemones and corals. Strange to think we were probably the first people ever to visit this location.

'Shark City' is another 'bank' a short distance from 'New Bank', and is known for its nurse sharks, while as its name suggests, at 'Silvertip Bank', you can be hopeful of seeing this beautiful but rather timid oceanic shark species.
Timidity is all very well, but doesn't make for very certain encounters , and some jackf ish bait was enlisted as encouragement. For Hilary and I, this was our very first shark feed, and a degree of apprehension preceded our descent as a group down the mooring line to a position some 15 m away from the would-be site of the action. Matthew and Simon, our divemaster, then hastily sworn down with the weighted bait, and we braced ourselves horizontally with anticipation.

The arrival of the first big silvertip (8 - 9 feet long) from behind us at great speed, within a minute of the bait being dropped, produced a pulse of adrenaline like an electric shock. It powered over our heads to get at the fish. In all four silvertips arrived, eventually accompanied by 'Ma,xine' a resident 9-foot nurse shark who tried to join the party, and a baby nurse shark, only 2 feet long. A repeat performance the following day was prolonged by freezing and enclosing the bait, allowing more time to admire these magnificent creatures at the top end of the underwater food chain.

Diving on the Burma banks may not be to everyone's taste, being very oceanic in nature, and subject to dramatic thermoclines and swells, but I don't think that Hilary and I will forget this location in a hurryl

Following all this excitement, Pelagian made light work of a rough overnight crossing to McCarthy Rock, our next diving site. The only topic before breakfast the next morning was the jet-strearn current and Charybdis-like whirlpools surrounding the anchored boat, and how the unwary diver might end up back on the Burmese mainland a little ahead of schedule! However Simon assured us that we were not actually diving McCarthy, beside which we were anchored, but would be diving the eastern face of Little McCarthy, a smaller rock some 400 rn away, where he assured us all would be peace and quiet.

The eastern wall of Little McCarthy was a sheer drop-off down to boulders at about 23 m. These boulders, covered in small soft corals, then stopped at the sandy bottom in about 30 rn. The wall was a macro photographer's dream, covered in a mass of life, tubastrea still feeding, anemones, porcelain crabs, hawkfish, nudibranchs, prawns, and banded coral shrimps.

At the bottom of the wall were two harlequin shrimps (how do dive guides find these in the middle of all this ocean- Never ceases to amaze me), a mantis shrimp and several nuclibranchs intent on having a good time.

McCarthy marked our last Burmese diving site, and after further formalities and bidding goodbye to our guide at Kawthaung, we motored south through the night back to Thai waters and Richelieu Rock, now an almost familiar location. Our final destination was the Similan archipelago, a group of very pretty islands with white coral beaches and lush vegetation. Some have the most amazing boulder outcrops that make them look as if a prehistoric giant had built them. Underwater there are very picturesque fringing reefs and large coral 'bommies'that sit on white sand, at depths to suit all requirements. At 'Morning Edge' (Similan no. 7, Ko Tang), and 'Eastern Front' (Similan no. 6), we were spoiled for choice at 10 - 20 m by an abundance of hard and soft corals, crinoids of all colours, gorgonians, glass fish, anemone fish, coral groupers, etc. and pink and black frogfish. The Similans were a spectacular finale to what had been a very successful trip, both in terms of the company, the boat, the food, and the photographic opportunities. Overall, the group had logged over 400 dives, with no camera problems or floods (almost unbelievable) and no sickness, ear infections or any of the other complications that can intervene on such occasions.

Now to a few facts and figures. Our host vessel Pelagian cruises at 9 knots, and with 42 metric tons of diesel aboard, she has a range of 8,000 nautical miles. Her construction in Norway was to Lloyd's +100A1 yacht and +LMC specification, and her onboard water-makers and over 20 tons of freshwater in the tanks mean no worries about an extra shower or rinsing of cameras. She measures 35 meters, weighs in at 245 tons, is air-conditioned throughout, and offers en-suite accommodation for 12 guests in 6 cabins, from standard to the master stateroom. Between 8 and 10 crew are on hand to look after all one's needs, and don't expect to lose any weight on the trip as the excellent Thai A nternati onal cuisine (and it is cuisine) encompasses 3 meals a day plus a little something in the afternoon at teatime, such as freshly baked coke etc! An added touch of luxury is the provision of freshly laundered, ironed cotton sheets every three days! The stylish salon has stereo and video faci lities, and there is a dedicated photo room for underwater photographic equipment. The diving is done mainly from 2 RIBS, as, due to her size, Pelagian has to anchor some small way from the actual dive sites themselves. Divers are issued with a type of delayed-action SMB comprising an orange sausage on 6 m of line to use on ascent.

During July, August and September this year, Pelagian will be visiting the Manado area, and in October, she goes to Bali, another very safe Indonesian location.

We flew British Airways to Bangkok, and Thai International from Bangkok to Phuket, and stayed a night at the very comfortable Holiday Inn at Patong Beach at either end of the trip. Pelagian is boarded from Patong Beach, and she can be booked through:

Dive Asia Pacific

e-mail: sales@dive-asiapacific.com
diveasia@qate.net info@dive-asiapacific.com
URL: http://www.dive-asiapacific.com

USA Toll Free 1-800-962-0395

Fax: 1954-351-9740
PO Box 22398,
Ft. Lauderdale,
FL. 33335.

M/V Sai Mai Live Aboard Diving
Tel: +66 (76) 263-732
PO Box 244
Fax: +66 (76) 263-733
Phuket 83000,
Thailand

Finally, we would like to thank Matthew, Simon and Simone, and last, but not least, Rick Lawson, for making our Andaman adventure so very memorable and enjoyable.

Reproduced from in focus 67 (February 2000)


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