Shark Dive in Burma

On A Live-Aboard in Thailand

Sixty miles off the west coast of Myanmar on the east side of the triangle formed by the Bay of Bengal, we queued up for our dive… our shark dive in the open ocean somewhere between India and Indochina. There were fourteen guests on the trip. The live-aboard boat moved slowly away from the Thai coast to a set of coordinates protected by the captain.

shark dive in Burma
On the Boat Heading to Burma Banks

The location was one of several vast sea mounts known as the Burma Banks. The underwater mountains rose from the depths to within 15 meters of the surface. They were a natural gathering place for pelagics (tuna, mackerel, swordfish, and sharks). We had three open water shark dives scheduled, one with a feeding; there were no shark cages, no protective gear of any kind except the chain mail sleeve worn by the divemaster when he fed the sharks.

We were not expecting Great Whites or Tiger Sharks although they inhabited the Indian Ocean. The relatively warm waters attracted several species of shark. And we did expect silvertips. There were pictures of them in the photobook on deck; thick shiny grey meat-eaters, just like in the movies. Though professionally organized and managed, the tour had an element of risk that qualified it as a real adventure.

Shark Dive

Once in the water and assembled, we descended as a group down the anchor line. Mike the Divemaster sat near the chum bucket on the bottom. The rest of us formed a jagged half circle as a group and deflated our BCDs for negative buoyancy. Mike looked for the thumbs-up from each of the divers and moved away to the chum bucket weighted to the ocean floor.

It was a five-gallon bucket with a twist lid. I could see the color change in the water when he unscrewed the top. It clouded with blood from the chum and Mike let a few scraps float out before he tightened the lid back on.

Feeding Frenzy

Immediately, dozens of fish of all sizes appeared seemingly out of nowhere and crowded the bloody water. Small yellow-and-black angelfish and little shad and parrot fish. Nurse sharks slid across the ocean floor in search of the source of the smell. Slowly, Mike removed meat from the bucket and allowed a nurse shark to grab a few bites. By that time, others arrived and he gave them the piece to fight over, then retreated.

Out of the gloom, a submarine appeared… which turned out to be a shark. A silvertip, as Mike predicted and we hoped. Then two more. Not close, but drifting like dark clouds between us and the surface. Much larger than the nurse sharks and shaped more like predators, their presence changed the vibe instantly. One came out of the gloom into our midst, passed through and disappeared.

silvertip on shark dive in Burma
Close Encounters on the Shark Dive

The big sharks were attracted to the chum party on the bottom. Mike did not open the bucket again. He would not invite trouble by feeding the silvertips. We would watch them and photograph them until they lost interest.

The nurse sharks continued to look for food. Twice more, the big silvertip coasted through our circle just out of reach, long enough for a short video capture or a couple of photographs. Those few minutes were the climax of the trip and there was complete satisfaction for everyone involved. Even for those experienced with a shark dive, it provided a unique thrill.

We dove the plateau again that afternoon but the silvertips were gone. We headed back toward Thailand that night, stopping to look for rays in the deep water and enjoying one more memorable dive.

Richelieu Rock

We came back through the Surin Islands to Richelieu Rock, easily the best dive site in Thailand and occasionally rated one of the top sites in the world. It’s fame was partly due to its association with legendary dive innovator Jacques Cousteau. It was rumoured that he discovered the inconspicuous rock on the ocean border between Thailand and Burma. Unfortunately, records show that he never made it that far north, having been unable to obtain the necessary permit.

The rock’s popularity was partially due to its geology. The horseshoe-shaped rock formation rose from the sea floor to the surface, from thirty-five meters to a pinnacle that barely broke the surface at low tide. The south side sloped gently to the sandy bottom, but the rest was steep and cliff-like, covered in perfect habitat for all kinds of rare and fascinating creatures. Soft colourful coral, sea fans, and anemones lived in symbiotic perfection with clown fish, lion fish, cuttlefish, octopus… and those intimidating moray eels. The rock was home to a mind-blowing diversity of life.

moray eel on shark dive in Burma
Moray Eels Always Look Angry

Richelieu was the only sizable rock in any direction for miles; like Burma Banks, it was a popular destination for pelagics. Whale sharks and manta rays migrated there to feed on the plankton bloom. We would have to manage our time underwater; part of the attraction was the possibility of seeing giant manta rays or a guitar shark dive, but they were at the bottom of the slope in 110 feet of water.

Two a Day

For the first part of our week on the liveaboard, we averaged a dive depth of twenty meters and many dives were most enjoyable at half that depth (primarily because sunlight was more abundant in shallower water and a full range of color was realized). Ten meters was the equivalent of two atmospheres of pressure, an easy adjustment for the human respiratory system and a depth one can dive at for at least an hour (if there is enough air in the tank). At twenty meters, the pressure relative to surface pressure tripled; more effort was required to breathe and air was used faster. Still, our dives at that depth were 45-60 minutes in length, leisurely, and we could get two or more dives in each day.

Many decided to stay in the upper zones and maximize their time underwater. Primarily the photographers, because Richelieu was a treasure trove of wildlife. At ten meters, both red and orange disappeared, yellow next, with green disappearing at thirty meters. Below that, it was a dark grey in deep blue. As a result, the surface provided more vibrant pictures.

taking pictures in the Andaman Sea
Filming with a Rented Video Camera

The other photographers onboard were better equipped and more experienced, but Page and I were lucky. It showed in our film library of the trip. Once, I was filming an octopus as it changed color in the reef when, out of the corner of the viewfinder, another octopus’s tentacle uncoiled to make contact. He was rejected and my film subject made a hasty retreat. All real-time on our rented video camera.

Burma Banks was a fabulous expedition. Not just for the spectacular diving but for the refreshingly different experience. My adventures had mostly been mountaineering, to that point. Scuba diving was new to me; to gain passage on a liveaboard for a week in the Andaman Sea was reaching the top all at once.

(Excerpts from “When I Was Cool”)

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One comment

  1. Beautiful pictures and exciting adventure, The underwater world is amazing, but still so little known. You were lucky to see, feel and touch it up close. Amazing story.

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