THERE’S NOTHING, REALLY NOTHING, that makes the day as much as waking pre-dawn, clambering into a swimming costume and heading up to the deck (via the coffee pot). Up top it’s silent, everything is still.
Before the coffee is done, a gentle sun-ray eases over the horizon. As the light increases slowly, all you can see is sea.
No land, no crowds and, best of all, no other dive-boats. Just how we like it.
The temperature is rising, the breeze is gentle and life seems very good indeed.
Then the pace changes, the ship’s engine coughs into life, the crew start moving and we hear “dive time, dive time”. A smile peeks above the deck. Hey, are you guys doing the pre-breakfast dive? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear… anyway, it’s time to get going.
After many years of diving from day-boats, waddling off the beach or leaping in from a jetty, we finally managed to get on a liveaboard. A friend had invited us, and that single moment changed our diving lives.
Yes, of course we were unsure at the start – we worried about the cost, the other people we might be stuck with and all sorts of issues. But once onboard, it didn’t take long before we realised the benefits.
You unpack your bags in the cabin, change from your real-life clothes to your swimming costume and that’s about it until the end of the cruise. You unpack your dive-bag and set up your kit and, yes, that’s about it until the end of your cruise.
You get to dive, dive, and, when you’ve had enough diving – if such a thing is possible – you can watch others dive.
Or hit the deck for a spot of sun, a quiet read or a gossip with your new pals. And whatever it is you decide to do, you need only go a few metres to do it, so there’s no rushing, no hassles and almost no stress.
Meanwhile, the crew look after everything, and I mean everything. They fill your tanks, look after your kit, help with your cameras, feed you and entertain you.
The boat takes you to places you would otherwise never reach, because it doesn’t have to return to shore at night. You get to visit remote locations with untouched dive-sites and you hardly notice the transition, as you are asleep at the time.
However, for all the positive comments we can make here, liveaboard virgins have concerns and these do need to be addressed.
SELECTING A LIVEABOARD
While the upside of liveaboard diving is obvious, the downside is that once you’re on, you’re stuck, so you should choose your floating palace carefully. This type of scenario won’t suit everyone, yet some of our best holidays have been on liveaboards, where the scenery was beautiful, every dive perfect, and we loved everything about everything. Ask the right questions to ensure that the trip you get is the trip you want.
Consider exactly what you do want. Don’t be over-influenced by what someone else says, because their version of perfect might not be yours.
Pick the destination first, by the type of marine life you want to see, the style of diving (wrecks, reefs, caves) and the time of year you can go. This gives you a choice of warm water or cool, dry days or rainy.
Weather is all-important if budget is a restriction. Going in low season means that it might be cheaper, but remember that’s because conditions might not be at their best.
Finding the right destination is the easy part, however, with so many from which to choose. Picking the right boat can be a little harder so list your queries, then ask the operator or an agent for answers. Use the checklist here to help you along the way.
WHAT IT’S WORTH
If a liveaboard seems prohibitively expensive at first glance, consider what it covers. With more dives per day and extras such as drinking water and soft drinks, the cost in real terms may lower than it seems. Increasingly boats are including more elements too, such as full diving equipment (saving on those baggage charges), nitrox and tours to local islands or landmarks.
We always work out a comparison based on a rough “cost per dive” to see if we think the overall price is value for money. Choose your destination, then add up the price of your flights, the boat and any extras such as marine-park fees or visas. Divide the total by the number of dives you expect to have, often four per day, for your cost per dive.
Repeat the exercise with a land-based package in the same place that includes flight, hotel and a dive-package. Again, divide by the number of dives and compare. It’s not certain which option will be cheaper, but remember that the liveaboard includes all meals, snacks, drinks and often nitrox.
Some throw in wine with dinner, some will take you on shore trips between dives or even arrange a bit of extra training. It’s all about value for money.
For many of us, the real draw of diving from a liveaboard is access to your all-time dream destination, because a boat is able to take you further into the blue. Are you after wrecks, big stuff, things to photograph, somewhere with beautiful scenery or a place where you can get off and see the land-sites?
Here is an overview of liveaboards in some easily reached parts of the world, and a few that are a bit more aspirational.
The Great Barrier Reef is an all-year destination and can be great value, important after such a long flight. Most trips last 3-4 days and longer ones are just two pushed together, so involve returning to port. There are only a few boats, and rates vary. In winter you can dive and snorkel with minke whales.
With only two boats currently, cruises travel from the coast to the famed Lighthouse Reef, location of the iconic Blue Hole. Trips last seven days. Weather tends to be very unsettled in September.
Again there are only a few boats, with routes such as Saba-St Kitts, around the Turks & Caicos or the Cayman Islands. These are particularly good value and dives are easy and pleasant. Hurricane season is the last half of the year.
There are countless liveaboards in Egypt, which means competition is high and costs can be low. Be careful, however, because as with all things, you get what you pay for. Trips tend to last seven days to coincide with European charter flights. The far south is least busy, while the north has a greater variety of sites.
Currently, there are only two liveaboards here as well, one new, one of very long standing, so they have quite different price bands. The water temperature is a gnat’s crotchet cooler than some destinations, so the corals are regarded as among the best in the world.
The appeal of seeing big marine creatures makes this the ultimate diving destination for many. The land creatures are pretty spectacular too – and liveaboard prices are high. Only a handful of boats are issued with diving licences (make sure you check that the one you fancy has one). Conditions can be harsh, but rewards are high.
Probably the most targeted liveaboard destination, as there are a wealth of boats at all budgets in what is regarded as the world’s most prolific marine environment. Plus, the size of the country means that no one location is over-run – you can still feel as if you are the only person on the planet.
A lone liveaboard is stationed off the coast near famous Sipadan, but this budget boat is really a floating hotel that shuttles between Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai, dropping people back to shore every day or so.
As in Egypt, liveaboards have burgeoned to the point at which it’s almost too busy. There is little chance of being the only boat on the horizon here. Costs are higher than in Egypt but standards are very good. Trips tend to last seven or 10 days, and the larger marine life can be spectacular.
The only liveaboards in this country depart from the Pacific Coast heading for Guadalupe (great white sharks), Socorro (sharks and mantas) and the Sea of Cortez (seals and whales). These are unique trips, often with long crossings but well worth the money.
Palau and Truk both have a few liveaboards, with more in Palau. These two destinations are a long haul from the UK, but the diving is well worth it and Palau is particularly good value for sharks, mantas, turtles and caves. Truk is all about the wrecks, with a lot of impressive but deep dives.
For a long time this was a land-based dive holiday destination, but the number of liveaboards has slowly risen. A range of routes allow a whole region to be dived rather than a single island, and the variety of sites from critter to wreck to reef makes this superb value.
With weather conditions dictating that dive trips in the Indian Ocean are limited to half the year, along with natural disasters and some economic pressure, the number of liveaboards here has dropped dramatically and schedules have been shortened. However, the diving can be brilliant.
You’ve heard the saying that a boat is a hole in the ocean into which you throw money?
There’s a lot of truth in that, so boat-owners have to be dedicated to their investment and keep it in tip-top condition. There is rarely any reason to worry about sea-worthiness, but again, you do get what you pay for.
These questions are the sort worth asking to ensure that you get the type of trip you want. Don’t feel that you can’t ask – operators worth their salt will know that you’re asking for the right reasons.
* Maximum number of passengers on board?
* Are children allowed?
* Facilities for non-diving partners?
* Non-smoking policy?
* Cabin layout – bunks or ground level, single or double beds?
– which deck and location is near the engine-room?
* Cabins for single people?
* En-suite cabins or number of shared bathrooms?
* Deck/beach towels?
* Camera and computer facilities?
* Free (or back-up) diving equipment?
* Number of divemasters?
* Number of dives in a day, or total in the trip?
* Schedule of dives – time of first and last, night dives?
* Solo, buddy or group dive policy?
* RIB, tender or liveaboard diving?
* Ladders on tenders/RIB?
* Best season for special events?
FOOD & DRINK
* Can the cook cater for vegetarians, any medical or allergy restrictions?
* Included soft beverages?
* Included hard beverages?
* Are airport transfers included?
* Marine park or port fees?
* Any additional taxes?