2003 Myanmar (Burma) english

Reef Check Report Myanmar (Burma) 2003

by Georg Heiss (Reef Check Europe) and Kim Obermeyer (Reef Check Thailand).

Andaman Sea, Mergui Archipelago, February 2003


image001Photo: © JP

The first dive of the 2003 Myanmar Reef Check/Europe Conservation Switzerland expedition was on a southern point of Parsons Island (Nge Lon Lett Phei). The six divers - Georg Heiss, Scott Linge, Olivier Mueller, Kim Obermeyer, Joel Pascal and Martin Rosenberg, began with an exploratory dive entering at a rocky point and diving in the direction of the beach. At the rocky tip there was low coral coverage and at least 50% bare rock with some fire corals. The substrate was obviously not favourable for coral settlement. Closer to the bay there was a large Acropora forest from 2-8m depth, with monospecific stands of several species, seemingly in good health, even though large fish are missing. We noted two possible dynamite craters. That evening we sailed on to the magnificent Macleod Island.


Photo: ©JP



In the morning we did a Reef Check Training in front of the northern beach in the large southern bay of Macleod Island (Kho Yinn Khwa). The training transect was at 5m depth, on one segment (20m) of transect line. Corals where mostlyAcropora and visibility was pretty low, in particular when the tide changed. The tidal range in this region is 3-4m, so there is considerable water movement. Mainland rivers (e.g. Kra River) bring high nutrient load into the shallow sea, which leads to the growth of plankton and reduces the visibility.

We anchored in front of the last beach, and in the evening Joel and Georg snorkelled into the dark to the fringing reef and observed spawning of a Lobophyllia coral colony.


image008Photo: ©GH


In the morning we did the first Reef Check (Myan05) at Macleod Island (Kho Yinn Khwa). We surveyed a gently sloping reef at 5-6m depth in a sheltered bay (most of the year). There is probably wave action during the SW monsoon. We observed very high density of Acropora corals, also Lobophylliaand Pavona were abundant. There were almost no sea cucumbers, and almost no fish > 20cm, most were smaller. A relatively high number of Diadema sea urchins was present and visibility was remarkably good (15-20m).

Also obvious was a series of old blast-fishing craters. In these craters we found a high density of Fungiid corals, but we didn't see signs of recent blast-fishing. However, during the survey we heard 6 explosions of remote blast-fishing activity.

A local fishing boat came to the bay and we asked them about their catch. They informed us that locals fish here for sea cucumbers, lobster, and other fish. That afternoon we sailed on due north to Cavern Island where we anchored in the dark along with several fishing boats.



Photo: © JP

After breakfast we left Cavern Island and sailed 10:00 to "High Rock", a popular dive site for liveaboards from Phuket. The island is ca. 50 m in diameter with but one tree on top of the island. Georg checked with Martin for a Reef Check-site, but the rocks of the island go rather steep to greater depth and there is only scarce coral coverage. Apparently the chemical composition of the rock is not favourable for coral settlement. We found steep rocky cliffs around the entire island, with nearly bare rock and very low coral coverage (Millepora, few others). The site was not suitable for a Reef Check. Visibility was low (5-7m), but we saw a relatively high number of small fish.

So we sailed further north and arrived in the afternoon at Great Swinton Island (Kyunn Pailar). We decided to do a Reef Check on the southern side at the large northeastern bay, near the mouth. The transect was at 7m below sea level (=5.5m below mean sea level), close to the rocky shoreline. We started at high tide (15:00), visibility was low (5-7m). Again we saw high coral coverage with sandy patches, gently sloping towards the sandy bottom at about 8-9m. Many Acropora stands on a sandy bottom, few Porites colonies, many Fungiids in places where other corals were absent. One of the only crown-of-thorns starfish was spotted here, off-transect. White-bellied fishing eagles soared around the island.



image014Photo: © JP

Around noon we arrived at the small island of Kyunn Thone Lon, which was ReefChecked in 2001. We swam into the direction of the small beach at the Eastern side of the island and found in very murky waters a remarkably well developed reef, with dozens of really big colonies of Porites and Diploastrea. There were also high numbers of Diadema sea urchins present and bioerosion was an obvious feature.

image017Hinge-beak shrimps (Rhynchocinetes sp.) Photo: © GH

In a small crevice we found a great number of small red and white shrimps, which we never found again during the entire trip. This site seemed to have the highest density of fish and large fish of any of our Reef Check sites.

After the Reef Check we sailed to a small fishing village on Pu Nala island, where Burmese and Moken fisherfolk live in a nice, remote and peaceful place. We bought a few food items (we didn't buy the sea cucumbers which laid at the beach for drying) and had a lot of fun with the children, especially when they discovered that we could take photos with our digital cameras and they could see themselves immediately. This was good fun for both sides.





In the morning we sailed a few miles until we reached the next Reef Check site (MYAN 02) at the SW-coast of Lampi Island (Kyunn Tann Shey), the largest island in the Mergui Archipelago. The entire island is declared national park, and therefore the state of the reefs is of particular interest. Explorations of the jungle near the coast revealed several large trees that had been poached perhaps to make fishing boats with. The Reef Check transect was set in a bay at the south coast, starting 100m off shore, just in front of a small beach and running towards the larger beach in the inner bay. The visibility was again pretty low (7-8m), and coral coverage was not particularly high, possibly because this bay is somewhat open to the SW-monsoon. Some large Poritesbommies were toppled over, another sign of sometimes rough conditions in this bay. We snorkelled quite some time in the bay, mainly because Martin lost his dive computer (we didn't recover it, so have a look next time you are there). During the entire operation (6 people/ 3 or more hours) we saw of the Reef Check indicator species: in total 1 (one) sea cucumber, one moray eel, and one of the few lobsters we found during the trip. Later we sailed along the West coast of Lampi island to the North and found a nice bay to anchor for the night.



Photo: © GH

In the morning we sailed one hour to the west to the next Reef Check site (MYAN03), at Tar Yar Island. Here we did Reef Check surveys in two depths, as this as the only site where there was an almost continuous reef developed down to 9m. The site is located in a bay at the NW side of the island. This bay has two beaches, and we chose a site in front of the western (smaller) beach. close to the GPS position of 2001. The transect starts from the GPS point and goes from E - W. The visibility in shallow water was with 10-15m relatively good, at 9m it was reduced with the incoming tide to only 2-3m. We saw a few really large Giant clams (up to 70cm). During a snorkelling and diving survey we observed great areas of cemented Acropora rubble and many toppled colonies of Porites and Acropora. All this dead coral area was covered with turf algae. Some schools of parrotfish, together with rabbitfish went over the reef and crunched at several places. Very few sea urchins and some smaller groupers were found, but no sea cucumbers. Some fishing nets were in the corals, and during the second survey we heard an explosion, but we didn't see blast craters in this reef.

In the evening we sailed to the North and entered the narrow passage "Salette Galette", which separates Northern Lampi Island from a smaller island to the West (Wa-Ale Kyun). As we sailed, we spotted wild boar foraging in the intertidal zone on Lampi a couple of times that day. At the entry to the passage we saw three crab-eating Macaques at the beach, enjoying the sunset. We anchored in the canal in front of the freshwater well at the coast.



image020Photo: © GH

In the morning we went ashore to fetch fresh water, like the guys from several squid fishing boats did, and we asked one of the boats for some fresh squid. They were happy to give us a bucket full, but they didn't accept the Gin we brought with us, as the "Spirit of the sea" would allow them to donate us the squid, but wouldn't allow to have alcohol on the boat. So we went back and gave them fruits instead, which was merrily accepted. Then we went on sailing out of the channel to the North coast of Lampi. Soon a part of the rudder broke, and when this was fixed, we set sail to continue our journey along the coast to Reef Check site MYAN07 at the very North-Eastern corner of Lampi. We passed several paradise beaches, and decided to have a survey at the last beach before the rocky coast begins to bend southwards. The location is N of Katat Aw and E of Kyauk Yin Island. The transect was installed at the Eastern side of this beach, just a few meters below the rocky coast, directing from the beach to the open sea (E->W).

Again we found ourselves in very turbid waters with a visibility of 5-8m, this time in a bit shakier environment as the site is relatively exposed. The underwater landscape is characterized by a high relief from the blocks of rock, but also of many really large Porites and Diploastrea colonies. There is a high coral coverage, and surprisingly great number of larger fish, possibly because the relief provides enough shelter from fishing. We saw a great number of Sweetlips of normal size, and a group of Giant Sweetlips hiding beneath a huge coral colony.

After the survey we sailed along the East coast of Lampi southwards and spent the night anchored in a small sheltered bay near another fishing village.



image024Photo: © GH

The next morning we made a trip to the village to obtain ice from a new ice factory there.  This village is larger and more active than the first we visited and fishing and ice packing seem to be major endeavors. Fishing boats from around the Mergui Islands can now bring their catch to be put on ice and transported rather than having to sell in immediately in Kaw Thaung on the Thai border. We counted about 40 regular open fishing boats (7-8m length) and about 4-5 large boats (20-25m length) with large seine or other nets. With the number of small boats operating in the relatively protected waters of the Archipelago, it is easy to easy to see the impact on fish populations they may have.

image027Photo: © JP

On our way south we passed the "Gregory Group" Islands and made a short stop at Than Dar Phyu Island, where we snorkeled in a wide shallow sandy lagoon with some corals, sea grass and sponges. There we saw some partially bleached small coral colonies in very shallow water. The bleaching was on the SW side of the colonies, indicating that exposure to UV radiation is responsible for this specific type of bleaching in a marginal habitat for coral growth. Water depth is about 1m at low tide, and probably lower during spring tides. We arrived late in the dark and anchored in a channel between Poni Island and Pulau bada island.




image029Photo: © SL

The channel was at least 20m deep, and filled with rubble and sand, but also beautiful sea stars and tree-like colonies of non-zooxanthellate corals, indicating low light condition due to the high turbidity in the surface waters. Directly in front of the boat we did our last Reef Check survey (MYAN08) at the reef edge of a very shallow reef. The reef continued in a small drop-off to about 6-7m where coral growth ceased.

Here we found the highest concentration of sea urchins observed during this trip: more than 1.000 Diadema along the transect! However, the corals seemed to be in a very good condition, coral growth is abundant and even fish life was better than in most other reefs we have seen. Here we saw the only banded sea krait of the trip.  No other indicator invertebrates besides Diadema were seen.

image030Photo: ©JP

Later we sailed straight for Kaw Thaung, and made a stop at an island (Cat and Kitten) where sea otters were observed in the last years, living in a cave at the beach. But this time we didn't see otters or traces of them. Then we set sails to the south and sailed under spinnaker for 8 hours (the engines were broken) until we arrived at 22:00 at Selung Kyunn, an island just in front of the river mouth at the border between Myanmar and Thailand.



image034Photo: © GH


In the morning we went into the harbour with one of the meanwhile fixed engines, cleaned and emptied the boat, which is waiting in Kaw Thaung for the next trip, cleared customs and went on the noisy long-tail boats back to Ranong in Thailand.


Myanmar 2003 Reef Check Team:


Participants (from left to right):

1.     Kim, biologist (USA/Thailand)
2.     Martin, volunteer, TV-journalist (Germany)
3.     Luca, skipper, Europe Conservation Switzerland (Switzerland/Thailand)
4.     Joel, volunteer, Natural Resources manager (Hawaii, USA)
5.     Scott, volunteer, (USA)
6.     Oliver, volunteer, Teacher and diver, (Lugano, Switzerland)
7.     Georg, coordinator Reef Check Europe (Cairo)

Reef Check surveys:

Site name











N 10°


E 098°


Kyunn Thone Lon.


N 10°


E 098°


SE Lampi Island (Kyunn Tann Shey).

MYAN03-2003 (10m)

N 10°


E 098°


Tar Yar Island.


N 10°


E 097°


Macleod Isl.


N 10°


E 098°


Great Swinton Island


N 10°


E 098°




N 10°


E 098°


Poni Island.