Imagine crystalline seas gliding effortlessly beneath the hull of a 100-foot ship. You stand watching volcanic peaks seemingly appear from the depths below. Retreating to your private cabin in order to gather your camera, excitement grows as you head to the dive deck to suit up. Feeling much like an explorer, you jump into far and distant seas for the first time. This is a typical liveaboard diving trip. Scenarios like these give scuba enthusiasts the opportunity to explore otherwise unreachable dive destinations or dive more frequently than possible when based on land.
What is a Liveaboard?
A diving liveaboard is a boat that has been purpose-built or remodeled for housing scuba divers and providing space for scuba diving operations. Liveaboards may also be called dive safaris or dive charters. Other than meeting the minimum requirement of hosting scuba trips that last more than one night, liveaboards can vary widely in terms of price, number of divers accommodated, amenities and the size of the vessel. For that reason, finding the perfect liveaboard can be a daunting task.
Advantages of Liveaboard Diving
Liveaboard trips are becoming increasingly popular around the globe. This is largely due to the number of benefits they provide to liveaboard divers. Let’s take a look at a few.
- Remote Destinations - Liveaboards travel to the most remote scuba diving destinations in the world. Many of these are inaccessible to land-based operations, giving liveaboard guests the unique opportunity to experience the wildest parts of the ocean.
- Uncrowded Dive Sites - Because of the limited number of guests on a liveaboard and the remoteness of many liveaboard destinations, you can expect to be the only group at any dive site. Even if you are diving somewhere near land-based operations, chances are you’ll get to the site and be out of the water before the first day trippers arrive.
- Personalized Service - Throughout your trip, you’ll be in close proximity to the crew. This means that dive masters will quickly learn the abilities of each diver and what their goal for the trip is. This level of personalized service from a liveaboard is difficult to find in a land-based operation.
- More Dives a Day - On average, liveaboards offer between 3 and 5 dives per day including a few night dives every week. This is far more diving than you’ll find at land-based dive resorts.
- Convenience - On a liveaboard, once your gear is set-up, it stays that way until the end of the trip. There isn’t any schlepping of gear down the beach or waiting around at the dive shop for late arrivals. Everything is always ready for your use on the dive deck.
Disadvantages of Liveaboard Diving
Of course, everything isn’t perfect. There are a few disadvantages to liveaboard diving, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention them.
- Lack of Outside Communication - This could be seen as both an advantage and disadvantage, but many of us are now reliant upon email and our smartphones to keep into contact with work and loved ones. On a liveaboard, the internet is often unavailable and telephone service can be spotty at best.
- Close Proximity to Strangers - While we like to think that all scuba divers are awesome, you might occasionally be stuck on a boat with some divers of differing viewpoints. Not getting along with your fellow liveaboard guests can make for a very long week.
- No Other Activities - For the most part, diving in the only focus of a liveaboard. On some itineraries, you may never step foot on land. Furthermore, by being on a liveaboard, you give up local cultural experiences and nightlife.
- Seasickness and Rough Seas - The weather doesn’t always cooperate, and you may experience rough seas during a liveaboard. For those prone to seasickness, this might mean a nauseous night spent staring at the horizon.
The first decision to make when booking a liveaboard is choosing your destination. There are dive safaris available in nearly every major body of water and on every continent, but not all scuba diving destinations are the right fit for liveaboard diving. Here’s a brief overview of some popular liveaboard destinations.
The South Pacific
Given the tendency of South Pacific countries to include multiple islands, the area is ideal for liveaboard diving. Dive safaris enable scuba divers to explore a deep wreck on one dive followed by the pristine reef of a completely different island on the next dive. Popular locations for liveaboards in the area include Fiji, French Polynesia, Australia and Palau.
Home to some of the most biodiverse waters in the world, Southeast Asia provides a healthy mix of land-based and liveaboard diving areas. In the case of Thailand’s Similan Islands, Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago and Philippines’ Tubbataha Reef, liveaboards are the only option.
However, Indonesia is the most popular liveaboard destination of the region. Many of its islands boast land-based resorts, but an argument can be made that the best dive sites in Raja Ampat, Komodo and Triton Bay are most easily accessed by use of a liveaboard.
Touching both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Central America is a dream for scuba divers. Locations like the Socorro Islands and Guadalupe in Mexico and Cocos Island in Costa Rica are far-off pelagic wonderlands only reachable by liveaboard. On the Caribbean side and in Belize in particular, divers find liveaboards overlap with land-based resorts but the allure of diving a different reef each day often means liveaboard diving is a better option.
The Caribbean Islands
Similar to the South Pacific, liveaboards have a unique advantage in the Caribbean in that they can reach many different islands in a single trip. For divers in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, this is a huge advantage.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, divers will find that liveaboards have access to some areas where land-based operations do not exist. A prime example is the Jardines de la Reina in Cuba.
The Red Sea
The remote nature of several wrecks, the most active pelagic hotspots and the region’s most pristine reefs make the Red Sea a great liveaboard destination. Scuba divers can depart from either Egypt or Sudan to take advantage of the best diving the Red Sea has to offer.
The Indian Ocean
Populated by remote atolls, the Indian Ocean hosts some of the world’s most luxurious liveaboards. It’s also home to a wide variety of whales, manta rays, whale sharks and hammerheads. Many dive safaris in the area focus on giving you the best chance to blow bubbles with these amazing creatures. Popular liveaboard destinations include the Maldives, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka.
Choosing the Type of Boat
The second major decision you’ll need to make when booking a liveaboard is choosing the type of boat. Boats can be placed into several categories, including motor-powered, sail-powered, wooden, steel, luxury or budget.
Motorboat or Sailboat
When it comes to powering a boat, there are two options: motors and sails.
Motorboats are the quicker of the two. They are also more stable than sailboats. So, if you value seeing the widest area of sea or are prone to seasickness, a motorboat might be the better option for you.
On the other hand, sailboats tend to be beautiful, locally built yachts. Often, they include both sails and motors as a means of traveling. If you prefer your boat to be stylish and traditional, choose a sailboat.
Steel or Wood
Although there are other materials used, the vast majority of liveaboards are constructed of either steel or wood. Your choice between these two different types of boat may affect your comfort level during your stay.
Steel boats are more than often motorboats. These yachts usually boast the most living space per square foot. So, if you value having large living quarters, pick a steel boat.
Alternatively, wooden boats are often found in Asia and the South Pacific. These are beautifully and locally constructed masterpieces, but can be a bit noisy. If you want a traditional experience, pick a wooden boat.
Luxury or Budget
Perhaps the most important choice when researching boats is choosing between a luxury or budget liveaboard. There are a few stark differences between the two.
Budget liveaboards tend to be about $1500 USD or less for a 7-day itinerary. These boats can feature private cabins with en suite bathrooms, private cabins with shared bathrooms or even dormitory-style cabins with shared bathrooms. As you might expect, amenities and excursions are usually minimal and alcohol is not included in the charter price.
On the other hand, the sky's the limit when discussing luxury liveaboards. These often cost more than $2,000 for a one-week trip. Many of these boats boast luxurious cabins with ensuite bathrooms, hot tubs, swimming pools, yoga studios, massage parlors, kayaks and/or a full bar. If you prefer to mix relaxation with excellent diving, a luxury liveaboard is the right choice for you.
Choosing the Duration
The third choice you face when booking a liveaboard holiday is choosing the duration. This may be predetermined by the length of vacation you can take, but for many, finding the right balance between time on the boat and time spent on land is an important consideration.
Most liveaboards sail for 7 days, but in many destinations, it’s possible to find boats that make 5-night trips or less. In other cases, you might find upwards of 14-night cruises that encompass two or more countries.
First, you’ll need to decide how long you want to be away from home. Then, choose how many days you’d like to spend on land, experiencing the local culture. Once you’ve deducted that time from your total vacation length, you’ll know exactly how many nights to book on a liveaboard.
Choosing the Number of Dives per Day
Yet another important factor to consider when choosing a liveaboard is the amount of diving you’d like to complete each day.
Some liveaboards offer a normal schedule of three dives per day with an optional night dive a few nights a week. Other safaris allow divers to complete up to six dives a day.
It might seem tempting to choose the liveaboard with the most dives per day. But consider whether that is your ideal holiday. Six dives a day leaves little time for relaxation or other activities.
On the other hand, you are traveling by liveaboard in order to maximize your scuba diving opportunities. This decision is one of personal choice, but not one that should be overlooked.
What to Pack
Once you’ve booked yourself on the liveaboard of your dreams, one final decision remains. That is what to bring with you. Remember space is limited, and baggage fees on local airlines can add up. Below you’ll find our suggestions for what to bring along and what to leave at home.
Bring it with you:
- A jacket or sweater - Even in the tropics, the nights can be chilly. Also, common areas tend to be heavily air conditioned. Some warmth is sure to be welcome.
- Two wetsuits and two swimsuits - You’ll be diving so often that one wetsuit and swimsuit won’t dry fast enough. Bring two so that you can dive in one while the other dries.
- Proper exposure protection - It’s important to check with your liveaboard operator regarding dive conditions. Always pack an extra hood or pair of gloves just in case. Remember your core temperature will drop throughout the week.
- A marker float - While most liveaboards provide safety equipment to all divers, it never hurts to be over prepared.
- An extra camera battery - Don’t go crazy with camera equipment, but an extra battery will be useful if electrical outlets are limited on your boat.
- A short extension cord - Sometimes outlets aren’t conveniently placed near sitting areas. If you want to use any electronics while lounging, an extension cord can come in handy.
- A portable hard drive - For both the serious and amateur photographer, a portable hard drive will allow you to backup your photos and share snaps with fellow liveaboard guests.
- Reef-safe sunscreen - Toiletries are a necessity, but make sure they don’t hurt the environment.
- A sarong - Most boats won’t allow wetsuits in the living and dining area, pack a sarong or cover-up to throw on over your swimsuit.
- Clothespins - If you hang your swimsuit or clothes outside to dry, use clothespins to make sure you don’t lose them overboard.
- Soft-sided luggage - There isn’t much room for storing traditional suitcases. Soft-sided luggage can be folded up for easy storage.
Leave it at home:
- Too many clothes - Remember that you’ll spend most of your time in the water, so you won’t need many dry clothes.
- Too many shoes - Most boats have a “no shoes” policy. You can leave those dress shoes at home.
- Most of your gadgets - Liveaboards have plenty of entertainment on board, and you’ll be diving for most of the day. You don’t need to bring every electronic gadget you own to keep you busy.
- Makeup - Speaking to the ladies out there, you don’t need to apply mascara when you spend most of the day in the water. Leave your makeup at home.