I had no idea what to expect as we steamed into the southern waters of Myanmar. It was dusk, the coastline shrouded in darkness as we crossed the boarder town of Kaw Thaung on our live-aboard boat. The following morning dawn broke and I stepped outside for the first time to view my surroundings. The breath caught in my throat as I scanned the horizon to find dozens of tiny limestone islands dotting the sea. Like little individual cupcakes, each was iced with greenery from grass to tiny trees. The islands were reminiscent of bonsai gardens, each with its own perfect and unique landscaping. It was awe-inspiring.
I of course had heard of Myanmar (formerly Burma), but always in the context of their shifting and controversial governments, international embargoes, and high profile political prisoners. Never did I imagine that such a war ravaged and historically unstable country would boast such pristine and breathtaking land and seascapes…such incredible beauty, hidden away from the world.
Of course, I did not travel all of this way for the scenery; it was simply an unexpected gift and I delighted in the surprise. As usual, I am on the path of giant mantas. My mission at the moment is to have a closer look at the manta rays that aggregate seasonally in this region. From late January to early May giant mantas are frequent visitors to the offshore islands along this coast, from Thailand’s famed Similan Islands, to the archipelagos of Myanmar in the north.
Unable to secure research permits to satellite tag manta rays in Thailand’s national parks, my work seemed indefinitely on hold until 2012. Depressed and frustrated with red tape and time wasted, I had all but given up hope. This was only a touch ironic since I am nearing the end of my “Ray of Hope” worldwide expedition. Feeling desperate and deflated was not part of the plan.
But then at the last moment, fate stepped in and Siam Adventure Divers, a conservation friendly outfit based out of Khao Lak (http://www.siamadventuredivers.com) invited me on an expedition to the relatively unexplored Mergui Archipelago. I let the foreign sounding names roll off my tongue a few times. I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely sure that this plan would work.; most of the manta sightings are concentrated further south in the Similans and there is no well known aggregation site for them up north. But with nothing to lose and tags to deploy, I graciously accepted their kind offer and I was off!
The coastline of Myanmar is literally peppered by one of the most extensive archipelagoes in the world. Over 800 islands of various sizes and proximity to shore shelter the shores of this low-lying country. These islands and their associated reef systems protect the country from storms and other natural disasters and more importantly these offshore habitats are home to an incredibly rich biodiversity.
The pace of the expedition was both lazy and adventurous. All of our divers were experienced and were equipped with a sprit of discovery. Along our route we stopped to dive on reefs that were old favorites and jumped into the unknown elsewhere. We lost all sense of time and just dove our hearts out. Julia Roberts may have recently mastered eating praying and loving but our profile looked more like Eat Dive Sleep.
Along the way we had many fantastic adventures, saw a suite of interesting marine animals from pipefish to sea snakes but it was the dives we made at one tiny offshore island that set the standard of diving in the region. As we steamed northwards we passed through a stretch of wide ocean expanse. After hours, and hours of nothing but calm blue water a tiny island appeared on the horizon. It was really quite small, jutting up from the depths to stand only a few stories above water. The tiny limestone island was no more than 30 meters across with step bolder stacked walls and sheer drop-offs into the depths. Sound familiar? It did to me. In fact, it sounded and looked like almost every other giant manta ray aggregation site that I knew of. My hope soared!
Quietly confidant, but not wanting to jinx myself, I prepared my satellite tags and slipped in to the warm 30 degree water with my trusted field assistant Lindsay Marshall (no relation, although I cannot help but think that having two Dr. Marshall’s on this trip was fortuitous).
What lay before me as I descended defied my imagination. To put the experience in context I have to digress a bit and tell you that Myanmar’s waters are heavily overfished. Thousands of fishing boats from squid boats and trawlers to longliners, rape and pillage this archipelago each year. We dove areas where dynamite fishing had reduced coral reefs to desserts of shrapnel and dust. Each evening we choked back disgust as we watched the horizon around us fill with more twinkling lights than the night sky above. It was heart-wrenching.
So when I sunk down through the water column at Black Rock I hoped for the best, but anticipated the worst. What I found exceeded every expectation I could have imagined. Forests, of fans and soft coral in every colour. Beds of anemones that covered boulders as far as the eyes cold see. Schools of low-lying glassfish so dense, that as they hugged the reef they gave off the illusion of a moving carpet. The reefs were alive with crustaceans and tropical fish of every variety and colour. Cuttlefish provided extravagant light shows in surface waters, as their skin attempted to camouflage them against the canvas of the reef. Game fish from kingfish to barracuda darted in and out of my frame of vision. It was a visual symphony and my senses reeled. Then as if on cue, the mantas arrived out of the blue…
The first on the scene was a small, glowing white male ray. Leucistic manta rays are not true albinos but we still refer to them as white mantas. These white mantas have very reduced pigment, a product of a rare genetic disorder, but are fully functional otherwise. Ghostly in appearance, leucistic mantas are favorites of divers worldwide, often referred to as the angels of the sea. I could hardly believe my luck.
Not wanting to waste any time I attempted to tag this ghostly apparition before he disappeared into thin air. Fighting an unimaginably strong current I inched my way closer and closer to where he was being cleaned on the reef and with a final stretch of my arm the tag was in and this small, white male, became the first satellite tagged manta ray in Asia!
But as he pulled away the tagging poles elastic caught on my dive computer and ripped the pole out of my hand. Still precariously balancing on his back the manta swam off into the current with my tagging pole! I was no match for his pace and I screamed into my regulator in frustration. Ducking over the ledge the manta swam over the 60 meter mark and the pole dropped into oblivion. Game Over.
While this could have been the end of my story, a surge of indomitable spirit overcame me. Not wanting to have come this far only to have our efforts thwarted prematurely, we decided to fashion a new pole. Using only materials that were aboard the boat, namely a piece of fishing rod, some PVC pipe, fishing sinkers, cable ties, electrical tape and a nail, my team (mostly Clive who I have since dubbed McCliver) whipped up a new, very fashionable looking, tagging pole.
Armed with my new gear, I headed back to the reef. Giant mantas filled the water column from the 10 meter mark until they faded into the darkness at 50 m. Wanting to find some balance, I selected a normal coloured female manta and successfully tagged her, this time with no incident. The tag was on and it looked great! Amazed that my new makeshift pole actually did the job I glanced down only to find that my single shot had shattered its shaft rendering it useless. Still, two tags were now on and my emotions swelled with a feeling of relief and success.
With no more materials to work with, we had to end our mission after the successful deployment of the second tag. Both tags are still on the mantas and as we speak are capturing a suite of valuable data points as they roam the high seas. For a local twist, we named the first leucistic male Siamese White after the well-known seafaring explorer of the Mergui Archipelago (in the late 1600’s). The other manta, a queen amongst giants we named Cousteau, in honour of perhaps the most inspiring family of ocean explorers this world has ever known.
During the two days that we spent at this magical island we encountered at least 11 different individuals indicating that Black Rock is likely an important aggregation site for them seasonally. With close proximity to depth and easy access to the open ocean this habitat seems perfect for these pelagic giants. Only time will tell where they venture after leaving this magnificent location. Each of the tags has been programmed for 4 month deployments so we should have answers to these and many other burning questions by early July.
Having just returned from Myanmar I am still on a natural high from our expedition. My emotions however are mixed. The beauty of the archipelago will be etched into my memory forever. Black Rock now stands as one of my top 10 best dive sites of all time. We have again made manta history and the experiences that we had exploring this remote coastline will stay with me for the rest of my life. But the fragility of the region was all too real on this expedition; the damaged reefs too tangible, too visually disturbing to ignore. These images stay with you. I have never before seen the extent of this kind of damage, this type of destruction and pollution. I can’t shake it. Almost every manta ray that I saw bore the scars of fishing lines or net entanglement, we virtually saw no sharks or stingrays on the entire journey, plastics of every conceivable variety floated at the surface and were strewn across uninhabited beaches. The coral was bleached, broken, the fish poisoned or unsustainably harvested to the level that recovery seems almost unfathomable.
Is this the future of Myanmar? Reefs and diversity that have been pristine and thriving since before the Egyptians built the great pyramids, before mammoths walked the earth, before our earliest memory as a species have been destroyed in what seems like a blink of the eye. In our short time on earth we have changed the natural systems of this planet. We have dominated the plants and the animals and have populated the earth like destructive locusts. Our actions have affected almost every living creature in existence and the repercussions of these actions will be felt for a long time to come. We are truly an amazing species, so capable, so intelligent and yet so selfish and destructive. But our capacity for growth, learning, and empathy sets us apart. It is now up to each one of us to open our eyes and see what is happening to our beautiful and fragile planet. The time for inaction is over. We must accept responsibility for what we have done and demand that we do better. Perhaps this is the real message of this expedition; the real ‘ray of hope’ belongs actually to our species at this very moment in time. What we choose to do with this narrow window of opportunity is up to each one of us…