Schooling mobula rays in Myanmar

Our recent expedition to Myanmar was a combination of all the things I love about diving. Discovery, adventure, diving with manta rays, diving with great buddies and having a lot of fun on a Myanmar liveaboard in a far flung location. So far flung in fact that we actually fell off the sea chart for Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago. It was the realisation of a plan I had been hatching for a while now. It reminded me of my early days of diving in Myanmar and would result in something rather exciting for the future.

Michael, Ric and Morgan

Reunited with long term diving buddies Michael and Morgan

The fact that Morgan and Michael had returned for another adventure made it all the more special. They were present the first time I led a longer expedition into Myanmar almost 10 years ago and their participation once again was reassurance that we run trips worth coming back for. They were joined by many more familiar faces who have dived with us in more recent years. It was great, instant camaraderie and fun right from the off.

So the first ever Manta Discovery Expedition started at a familiar small resort, Phu Khao Lak early on 14th March 2017. Like most of our previous expeditions to Myanmar, Phu Khao Lak is our mission control, our Houston on the Andaman Sea coast. A few of us had already done the pool meet up session the day before, like we do every year to catch up on life since we last met, reminisce over previous trips and chat about the latest expedition plan.

When I say plan I now smile to myself. We had more an idea for an expedition than an actual plan. That’s one of the advantages of calling a Myanmar liveaboard trip an expedition, the term expedition gives you plenty of scope to make things up as you go along. But there was an idea, a rough, if not sometimes vague plan behind the expedition.

The Expedition Plan

To visit manta hotspots in Myanmar and Thailand with Anna to conduct ongoing research and education as part of our long term commitment with the MMF. To scope out new manta dive sites further north in the Mergui Archipelago based on satellite tagging data. To have plenty of fun and good times between dives on our boat, the Deep “Fried” Andaman Queen.

The Expedition Reality…

Sorting our expedition tee shirts

Back to our Houston where our mini buses and staff had assembled to begin hotel pick-ups. I was excited that departure day had come around after months of planning and fretting about the trip. I approached the day in my usual cool manner (even if I say so myself) but inside I was fretting more than ever…. had I over looked anything, forgotten anything, forgotten to tell the group anything, would Myanmar entry go smoothly, would we see mantas, would northern Mergui actually be any good, had we packed enough Hong Thong, had we packed too much Hong Thong, had we forgotten to pick someone up, was I fretting too much, was I mentally torturing myself…… probably.

We had a great team; Anna, Rachel, Niko, Christian and Neil, we had a great boat with a great tour leader, Steve and his great dive staff, Leanne and Chiko, plus one of the best Thai crews around, Kao and the rest on the Deep Fried.

Still, I can never really relax until we’re cleared by the harbour master and we’re heading out into the Archipelago, Victoria Point behind us and with the sun setting behind St. Matthews Island to the west as we head north. After the long haul north to Ranong, successful conclusions with Thai and Myanmar Immigration, briefings, check-ins and equipment set ups we were all finally enjoying a beer watching the sun set over St. Matthews Island heading north into the Mergui Archipelago.

Damn I was excited. We were all excited (with possibly the exception of the captain) as we headed north. This wasn’t going to be the usual north, this was to be serious north. Steve had okay’d a route that would take us Off the Chart. Properly off the chart, further north than any documented trip to date, off the edge of our known Andaman world. Off we set, an awesome bunch of people and a rough outline, all accompanied by a rumble of engines as we motored north into the night.

Job Well Done

I have done a fair few dives around Thailand and Myanmar since I first signed up for my dive master course in December 2004. I’ve run dive boats, worked dive boats, booked guests on boats and chartered boats over the years since then. During this time I’ve two favourite types of trips that have been seasonal highlights for me since 2009. Firstly there were the 9 day Burma Discovery Expeditions I ran on MV Similan Jazz with Siam Adventure Divers. The final one in 2011 was the first time I dived with Dr Andrea Marshall which introduced me to manta conservation and research. Since then I have been involved with yearly Ray of Hope Expeditions with the Marine Megafauna Foundation.

These trips keep my passion for diving alive, they provide purpose to what I do here in Thailand. Without these expeditions and my involvement with the MMF studying manta rays I wonder whether I would still be so active in the local dive industry. Probably, but who knows.

In planning the 2017 Manta Discovery Expedition I wanted to combine the core aspects of our old Burma Discovery trips and the more recent manta research expeditions. I wanted the thrill of further exploration in Myanmar and what better way to do this than choosing unknown areas where we might encounter manta rays.

Having two purposes to the trip ensured a better chance of success. In this case we were unlucky with manta encounters but we did discover West Canister Island. We had amazing dives there and there were many indications that we found a decent manta aggregation site.

I have quite a hazy memory when it comes to past liveaboards trips and I realise I probably say every year after an expedition that that was the best trip ever, but in this case I really have to borrow the intention and meaningfulness in the way Katja says it. That really was the best trip ever.

Group shot once off the chart

Heading Off the Chart was the moment I knew we had found a winning formula. The moment was warmly and enthusiastically celebrated. As a team we’d done it. So a huge thank you goes to all the guests for your participation and upbeat spirit at all times of the trip. Thanks to Niko and Chris, my partners in crime at Diversion and thanks to Rachel for your ongoing help. Cheers Neil and Christian for your contributions. Special thanks to Steve for backing our somewhat ambitious route and the amazing work your crew did making it run so smoothly, Liana and Chiko too. Last but by no means least thank you Anna, its participating with you and the MMF that drives me to do all this.

So what’s next? More Off the Chart Expeditions and much, much more of the above. Next is Off the Chart Raja Ampat in December 2017, who’s in?