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Asia Dive News : Whale shark watching in the Mergui Archipelago

Divers exploring Burma's largely uncharted waters are left as gape-mouthed as the mammoth whale sharks they encounter

There is indeed peace to be found in troubled Burma, and it's yours for the plucking in an undersea garden. In the waters around the Mergui Archipelago in the country's far south, you're far from Rangoon's political agonies and deep beneath the appalling tide of drug cartels and human trafficking.

With an air tank and fins, you can explore serene, awe-inspiring beauty among the vividly wafting sea fans.

The surface conditions can be rough and the currents strong, so scuba diving in Burmese waters requires a spirit of adventure, and beginners ought to have someone keeping a close watch on them.

Burma offers neither great historical wrecks to sift through nor extracurricular non-diving activities - one of the reasons that few Thai dive shops offer Burma excursions - but count on thrilling encounters with plentiful sharks and rays.

Our expectations were high when we discovered that one of our dive sites would be the celebrated Burma Banks, where we'd heard about divers feeding small fish to sharks up to three metres in length. Imagine lots of sharks - grey reefs, silver tips, white tips and even nurse sharks - enjoying a frenzied lunch right before your eyes!

A few years ago, though, the government banned shark feeding to prevent people from altering their natural behaviour. Still, we reckoned there must be lots of things to see, and we were right.

Our first day began at High Rock, where the underwater conditions weren't so rough, making it perfect for a check dive. There were schools of fish in the 28-degree water, though the visibility wasn't great.

At Bualoy Rock we started to experience strong currents. There were fewer schooling fish than we expected, and still no sign of sharks, but more lionfish and stonefish than we'd seen off the Similan Islands or Koh Tao.

"The low numbers of schooling fish might be the result of fishermen using explosives and dragging seine nets," explained Chanin Yodkaew, an experienced diving instructor from the Scuba Jamboree shop.

There were no sharks at Shark Cave either, but we really enjoyed swimming through the short gap. The swift and strong current pushes you in and out, but at a predictable rhythm, so you just wait for the next wave to carry you a few metres more. The cave is so small you can't stand up, so you need good buoyancy to keep away from the rock surface and the poisonous stonefish and sea urchins.

On the second day we explored the Twin Pinnacles, North and South, where the rocks are covered by a vast, lovely carpet of soft coral. I've never seen such colour at any of Thailand's famous diving sites.

The rock formations are as big as those we've seen at Richelieu in Thailand, but more beautiful and abundant. Perhaps the only place comparable is the small Hin One-Roll Film dive site off the fifth of the Similan islands.

The exciting Burma Banks came on the third day, evidently a fantastic place to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

You need patience - we waited the whole day, and only saw one large, sleepy shark and a small nurse shark. There were complaints, but I didn't feel disappointed because among the small rock formations on the site's broad plain are gorgeous gatherings of soft coral, sea fans and colourful fish, just like in an aquarium.

Our real highlight came on the fourth day, when we visited Sea Fan Forest and encountered a big whale shark. We fought the current to grab lots of photos of the huge fish loitering in the depths with its jaws gaping wide open for plankton.

At Western Rocky you get the real experience of cave diving. The cave is about 30 metres long, and on one side is a large archway where you can swim in and out, a window through which the sunlight streams.

The light illuminated the most beautiful scenes among the swiftly turning current, lobsters and barracudas appearing frequently as we took the opportunity to do some wall diving.

The rush of the tide was all but forgotten as we lost ourselves in the wonders of a uniquely different world.

Source : The Nation