The Andaman Sea has long been a favorite with divers-- even Jacques Cousteau rated the Similan Islands in Thailand as one of the top underwater photography destinations in the world.
Also known as the Burma Sea, the Andaman Sea lies west of Thailand and east of the Andaman Islands. Sites in Thailand like the famous Richelieu Rock are a must for photographers and divers, where seahorses and all kinds of crustaceans are common and it’s likely to see leopard sharks, reef sharks, nurse sharks, pharaoh cuttlefish and even mantas and whale sharks in the right season.
The waters off of Myanmar are far less frequented and host an incredible array of remote pinnacles rising up out of the deep, isolated tiny islands with steep walls plummeting into the depths and shallow reefs teeming with macro life.
Worldwide Dive and Sail runs 10-day liveaboard trips in this area from its luxury vessel, the Oriental Siren. All Worldwide Dive and Sail trips to Thailand and Myanmar depart from Phuket, making way to Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock before heading to Burmese waters along the Mergui Archipelago.
Diving on the Oriental Siren
Worldwide Dive and Sail currently operates a fleet of 5 luxury liveaboards, all of which are designed and built by the owners in Indonesia, sparing no expense to meet the requests of even the most demanding underwater photographers and divers.
The 90-foot S/Y Oriental Siren accommodates up to 14 guests each trip and is built from the finest Asian teak and ironwood. The boat also has an expansive leisure deck, which is a great place to relax after a dive or enjoy a drink in the evening.
Inside, you will find a spacious saloon with cocktail bar, 32-inch flat screen TV and a computer supporting the inter-cabin network, which allows you to store your photos and videos for sharing with the rest of the guests. The covered outdoor dining area is set up in a way so everyone can socialize during meals while enjoying a nice sea breeze.
Each cabin has its own personal computer with audio-visual entertainment system and in suite bathroom with hot water. All rooms are lavished with luxury extras including bathrobes, hair dryers, towels, individually controlled mood lighting and personal air-conditioning units. You can even get a massage onboard after a full day of diving.
The Oriental Siren also had photographers in mind. There’s a huge charging and preparation station and plenty of padded cubbyholes to store your gear, so even in rough seas it will be safe. Large rinse tanks with fresh water are located on the dive deck and every diver has his or her own personal storage room on deck.
Diving From Phuket to Richelieu Rock
The boat spends the first two days of the dive itinerary in the Similan Islands. This is a popular dive destination and has been “on the map” for quite some time. Dive sites like “Kho Tachai,” “Anitas Reef” and “West of Eden” offer great macro and night dive opportunities—expect to find ornate ghost pipefish, seahorses, nudibranchs and shrimps.
The area is not just famed for its macro fare, and there’s a lot of dramatic scenery that just screams to be captured with a wide-angle lens. “Elephant Head Rock” is a site mainly composed of huge granite boulders with lots of swim-throughs and the occasional sea fan. Big shoals of glassfish and sardines slither through the rocks, constantly hunted by trevally and rainbow runners.
Mainly made up of boulders, “Shark Fin Reef” is marked also by cascading glassfish and some nice hard coral formations. Most of the time you will see leopard sharks sleeping on the deeper, sandy part of this reef.
“Kho Bon” is well known as a cleaning station for mantas, which usually arrive around March. Even without the mantas the wall is worth diving, as it’s quite colorful and schooling jacks flit about in search of a meal from the thousands of glassfish.
Unfortunately, the Similan Islands have been hard hit by coral bleaching and destructive fishing practices, so you will see some reefs that are not in the best shape. There is still plenty of coral around and some pretty big sea fans can be found on most dives.
After the Similan Islands, the Oriental Siren heads over to the famous “Richelieu Rock,” which is truly a scene to behold. This horseshoe pinnacle is one of Thailand’s best dive sites—and for good reason. There are not many places in the world where you can see harlequin shrimps and a whale shark on the same dive.
The biggest problem photographers face at Richelieu Rock is the decision to shoot macro or wide-angle. The shallow part is completely covered with soft corals and carpet anemones—it’s a very colorful dive full of life to say the least. Schools of barracuda patrol the blue water and it’s not uncommon to see beautiful pharaoh cuttlefish engaged in their mating ritual.
Schools of sardines, glassfish and juvenile barracudas intermix with the corals, which make the perfect backdrop for any wide-angle shot. Closer to the bottom at about 30m/90ft you can find tiger tail seahorses and even ghost pipefish. This is definitely a site that’s worth a few dives, or even days for that matter.
Underwater Photography in Myanmar
As soon as you sail towards the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar you’ll start asking yourself, “where did all the boats go?” It’s pretty lonely in the water off of Myanmar and you will most likely be the only liveaboard in the area. The only other boats you might pass are small fishing boats, but other than that you’re pretty much alone, which is an amazing experience. There are plenty of virgin beaches around and you’ll get a chance to go for a stroll in paradise between dives.
The scenery above water is as dramatic as underwater: tiny islands rising up out of nowhere are littered around the archipelago. Underwater, huge pinnacles rise up to the surface and there are a lot of big sea fans, schooling fish and colorful anemones. The diving is still relatively unexplored, so you never know what you’re going to see. I preferred shooting wide-angle during the day, saving macro for the night dives when all sorts of crustaceans come out.
This tiny, picturesque island with a small tree on top is an excellent dive site and a great way to start diving in Myanmar. This wall dive has features several sharp pinnacles and tons of soft corals, anemones and schools of small fish. Currents can be fierce, but as it’s a small island there’s always some shelter. At night, there are literally thousands of Durban dance, or hinge beak shrimps, which are common on most dive sites in the area. If you like scorpion fish then you’ll love diving in Myanmar—these guys are found on pretty much every dive site, so be careful where you put your hands!
Like most dive sites in Myanmar, this is another small island that you can swim around in a single dive if you want. As the name suggests there is a cave, and indeed we found two sleeping tawny nurse sharks inside. We estimated one of the sharks at almost 12-feet long! The cave is not very big, so it is advised to go in one by one to avoid clutter and kicking up backscatter. The wall around the cave attracts huge schools of sardines, which make a perfect backdrop for all the sea fans and soft corals. One side of the island is a sloping reef where marble rays are common.
Shark cave also makes for an excellent night dive. We saw ghost pipefish, nudibranchs and again thousands of Durban dance shrimps. The soft corals have lots of life in them like soft coral crabs and other spider crabs.
This small rock, located right next to Stewart Island, has loads of coral growth and usually a very strong current to go with it. The steep walls are teeming with life and there are some overhangs where sharks like to look for shelter. The night dive at nearby Rocky Island must’ve been the best on the trip and shows that Myanmar is as much of macro destination as it is for wide-angle. There were critters everywhere: soft coral crabs, tiny octopus, cardinal fish with eggs, tons of spider crabs in the soft corals, hinge beak shrimps and scorpion fish.
Fan Forest Pinnacle and Western Rocky
These two gems of dive sites are not to be missed. “Fan Forest Pinnacle” looks a lot like Richelieu Rock as it is submerged and also shaped like a horseshoe. There is not as much life in the shallows, but the deeper end around 30m/90ft is where this dive site lives up to its name. The sheer amount of big sea fans is nothing short of spectacular and the depth and isolation of the pinnacle often produces excellent visibility.
“Western Rocky” is a great wall dive leading into a slope, where chances of seeing bigger pelagics are high. One dive group saw two guitar sharks and a grey reef shark in the deep. What this place is truly known for is pharaoh cuttlefish. We were lucky to witness a unique mating display from our cuttle subjects. Seeing these beautiful cephalopods interact with each other like that right in front of us was the highlight of the trip.
The Road Back to Thailand
After diving in Myanmar you’ll get the chance to go on land before checking back into Thailand. The harbor town of Kaw Thaung is worth a visit with its friendly feel and the unforgettable view of a sunset from one of the temples. You can talk about diving in this fascinating country while sampling one of the local Myanmar beers before heading back to the boat.
Depending on the itinerary, the Oriental Siren usually stops by Richelieu Rock again on the way back, which is a great way to break up the return to Phuket. On our last dive at Richelieu Rock we were treated to the mating habits of the pharaoh cuttlefish once more.
The Oriental Siren is a great way to explore this area. From the well known reefs of the Similan Islands to the unexplored sites of Myanmar, the crew made sure we saw all the highlights corner of the world has to offer. The itinerary in the Mergui archipelago is perfect for divers who don’t like crowds and love shooting both macro and wide-angle, as this place has all the critters and great reef scenery.