Liveaboard Scuba Diving Adventures

What to look for when choosing a scuba diving liveaboard

If you haven't been on a scuba diving liveaboard before, you may not know what to look for or what questions to ask. A scuba diving liveaboard vacation represents the ultimate choice for divers and the only realistic option for serious photographers or rebreather divers. But there are some important issues to understand and questions to ask before booking, in order to ensure that you choose the right boat for you and your group.

Why Choose a Liveaboard Diving Holiday?

Access, comfort, pampering, and terrific diving! A liveaboard boat can travel an itinerary that allows it to visit different diving sites in a day and over the course of the week giving the diver a great variety of diving experiences. The boat can generally moor up close to the site, allowing the divers easy access from its platform or using skiffs and tenders. You will not need to carry your gear back and forth for each dive.

Is it for Me?

First, a diveboat, no matter how luxurious, will not match the level of luxury offered by a top hotel, so ask yourself if this is important to you. In addition, you will be confined to the boat and your companions on the boat for the duration of the holiday. At some destinations (ie. Socorro Island in the Revillagigedos) you may not be able to touch dry land between embarkation and disembarkation. Some people love the "away from it all" experience but others might find it too confining and claustrophobic. Are you sufficiently easy-going to be able to cope with proximity to the rest of the group for an unbroken period of time? We recommend that you ask the operator how many square feet of interior space are in the common areas of the vessel and whether there is a separate dining room and lounge. The more separate spaces there are, the better!

Storage space on dive boats tends to be limited. You will not need to bring large suitcases of clothes. Liveaboard holidays are usually about reasonably intensive diving, ask yourself if that's what you want, or whether you will miss the ability to take part in other sports, visit the local shops and bars etc. Some itineraries (ie. Alaska adventures) do include a lot of shore stops and are more like being on a small cruise ship that offers lots of diving rather than being on a hardcore liveboard diveboat.

Finally, the diving on most liveaboard holidays is fairly advanced. The sites visited tend to be more exposed to both weather and current and also tend to be in deeper water where excellent buoyancy control is required. If you are just qualified, you might do better to take a land based diving holiday where the sites can be more suited to gaining experience and perfecting skills.

In choosing a liveaboard holiday, it is a good idea to seek the recommendation of other divers that you trust and who have similar standards and interests to yourself. A personal recommendation is better than any brochure sales patter. It is obviously a better bet to book your trip on a boat that is mostly sold out years ahead of time than to book with a boat that has a reputation for typically offering lots of "last minute deals". The "Undercurrent" website is a tremendous resource and chat rooms and "google" searches may be quite useful as well. On the other hand, things change: boats age, crews change or you may be unable to find someone who can recommend a boat in the location you want, so here are some considerations and questions to help you focus your search.

Facilities All Boats Should Offer

The following list represents facilities that any decent dive boat should offer - don't even consider a boat that doesn't offer all of these.
  • 3 - 4 dives a day
  • 3 full meals a day with fine gourmet cooking plus lots of great snacks
  • Unlimited free hot drinks, juices and soft drinks
  • Potable fresh water that is chlorinated and sterilized by ultraviolet light
  • Full diving service
  • Compressed air including nitrox
  • Supply of cylinders and weights
  • Well setup dive skiffs that can accommodate all the divers at one time
  • Bed linen supplied and changed regularly
  • Cabins cleaned daily
  • Personal kit station on the diving deck
  • Fresh water available for kit rinsing
  • Charging facilities for batteries, etc
  • A dedicated camera table and rinse water
  • A qualified dive-master team. There should be 2 - 3 dive-masters on the boat depending on the size of the group.
  • A passenger certificate from a recognized authority ie. US Coast Guard, ABS, Lloyds
  • Liferafts/jackets sufficient for the entire party and crew
  • A full specification of safety and navigation equipment for the boat and a fully certificated crew practiced in conducting regular boat and fire drills
  • Oxygen kits, AED (defibrillator), extensive first aid kit

Choosing a Boat

These are the areas where there are variations from boat to boat and where some focused questions can make all the difference to your holiday.

The Boat

How old is the boat and is it a purpose built dive boat? In many parts of the world, dive boats age very quickly and an older boat may be prone to mechanical problems or be literally falling apart. Boats that have been converted from some other purpose may or may not be particularly suitable as a liveaboard dive boat that has certain basic requirements i.e. large flat kitting up area. Ask when it was last in dry dock and refitted. If the answer is more than 1 year ago, be very suspicious.

Accommodation

Liveaboard boats mostly vary between those that will accommodate a party of 8 and 28. Depending on the size of your party, you should ensure that each pair can be accommodated in a private cabin. Dormitory style share cabins may not desirable. Does each cabin have a private loo or head? If not, you will be sharing with others on the boat and this will be a problem if people are ill or have different standards to your own. If the bathrooms are not private, then how many are there? Do not consider a boat where there is not a bathroom for each four divers as a bare minimum e.g. 2 heads for a party of 8, 5 for a party of 20.

Will you be sleeping in a bed or a bunk? A bunk is narrower than a bed and will be fixed to the wall. In a two-person cabin, the bunks will be one above the other while beds will be "side by side" . There is considerable difference in comfort in sleeping in a cabin with beds and a cabin with bunks.

Air Conditioning

This is a thorny issue. Many boats advertise air conditioning but in fact only supply it in the salon, not in the cabins. Others may have it in the cabins but turn it off at night because they will not run the generator overnight. In a small boat in a hot climate, air conditioning in the cabin can make or mar your holiday. Find out exactly what the system is on your boat. Bear in mind that if the cabins are on or below the water line, the portholes will be permanently shut and therefore air conditioning is the only effective way to cool your sleeping environment.

Living Space

A dive boat is not a cruise ship, it is not going to be particularly spacious. However, choosing a boat that offers you areas to relax in between dives and in the evening is important. Is there a sun bathing deck? Is there a sun sheltered area on that sunbathing deck for when you have toasted yourself enough? Can the entire party fit adequately into the saloon? Can the entire party sit down for dinner at one time?

Fresh Water

How much does the boat carry, and is it sufficient for the party for the holiday? Will rationing be necessary and if so, how much? Bear in mind that most boats need you to be water conscious but do not consider a boat where you cannot take one shower per day (note from Captain Mike -- on the Nautilus Explorer we carry ample water so that you can shower whenever you want).

Diving Space

How big is the diving deck? The entire party should be able to kit up at one time. There should be ample space and it should not feel "crowded".

Diving Entry/Exit

There should be a variety of options to cover local water conditions. In rougher seas, it is important to have an exit which is wide enough to allow a safe "giant step" into the water and a decent ladder for re-entry which will allow you to climb aboard safely. In calmer, more tropical waters, a rear entry platform at water level will allow very comfortable water entry.

Crew

This is the single most important issue in making your holiday a success. It would be better to choose a medium class boat with a superb crew than a luxury boat with a medium class crew. How many crew are there? Roughly speaking there should be at least 1 crew member for every 2.75 guests. What nationality are they and do the customer facing ones speak excellent English? You must be able to communicate clearly with them. How long have the crew been together? A crew that changes all the time may indicate problems. Who is the captain and how long has he been on the boat and skippering in the area? A knowledgeable skipper is vital. How many dive guides are there and what are their qualifications? How long have they been on the boat and guiding in that area? What times will the crew be working? You will want to ensure that the kitchen/saloon crew are up and about before your expected wake up time in order to ensure that drinks etc are available for you.

Itinerary

Make sure that you understand the number of dives and diving locations on offer for the week. Obviously, they will be subject to weather but what other variables are there? If you are chartering the whole boat, you ought to be able to have input into the sites and route - is that possible? Establish who is in charge of the itinerary i.e. skipper or dive master. Sometimes if this is not clear, disputes can arise.

Night Sailing

Will there be any sailing at night? This can be a positive or negative factor but you need to know if it is taking place. Making way at night is inevitably noisy and may result in disturbed sleep. On the other hand it often allows you to visit more distant sites and be on site at first light for that dawn dive.

What Time is the First Dive of the Day?

This is a very interesting question for a couple of reasons. You need to know what time you will be expected to get up if you wish to take that first dive? At some times of the year, in some locations, the first dive may be before 6 am (5:15 wakeup) in order to allow a full day's diving to be fitted in during daylight or sailing plans. Is this a problem for you? Even if you decide to stay in bed, the noise from your companions will wake you. On the other hand if the boat does not offer a dive before breakfast, that would be a bad sign, perhaps indicating that the organization is haphazard. A dive before breakfast is the norm in order to ensure that the best use is made of the diving day with plenty of opportunity to decompress between dives.

Dives

How many dives a day will be on offer and how many dives in the entire week? Will a dive guide accompany each diving group? Are you able to co-operate effectively with those marshalling dives, such as PADI Divemasters, who are qualified through other agencies? Will a full briefing be given before each dive? Will you dive from the main boat or sometimes from a skiff or inflatable boat? What are the boat's diving rules regarding time and depth? Are buddy pairs allowed to dive independently or must they always remain with a led group? Can you dive solo? Do the answers to these questions suit your diving requirements and experience?

Will there be night diving on offer?

In many areas of the world, night diving is a great pleasure and should be easy to accomplish from a liveaboard. If it is not on offer, it is important to understand why. Possibly the locations to be visited are not suitable, but you should ensure that it is not because the crew cannot be bothered.

What Extras are on Offer?

Apart from the basic excellent diving, what extra facilities does the boat offer which might make a big difference to you? If you dive Nitrox, is that available? If you dive a rebreather, can the boat supply the right quality of oxygen? How does it carry and fill Nitrox/Oxygen cylinders? Does the boat supply deck towels? Are there deck showers for a quick personal rinse after the dive? What entertainment is on offer: video; film shows; music. What are the boat rules on alcohol? It goes without saying that a professionally run boat will not allow you to dive once you have started to drink alcohol.

Weather/Sea Conditions

What is the weather and sea condition likely to be during the trip? How does this boat handle in those conditions? How good a sailor are you? Depending on the strength of your sea legs, this issue could make your holiday a living nightmare (another note from Captain Mike -- the Nautilus Explorer was custom designed to give the best possible ride and has a number of features that make it remarkably stable for it's size. Very few of our guests get seasick).

Who Else is On the Boat?

In an ideal world, you will have chartered the whole boat and put together your own party of like-minded friends. However, this may not be possible and you may have purchased a single place or a cabin on a boat full of strangers. Are they also individuals, or are you the only individual making up the numbers with a group? What nationality are they? If they are not English speakers, it could be a lonely week. If they are a group, what information can you find out about them e.g. affiliation, level, diving requirements. Are you a good match? Bear in mind that to some extent the majority will rule on the boat. If you are a single person who likes reef fish spotting on a boat with a deep wreck diving group, who do you think will control the dive site choice?

Meals

The vast majority of dive boats offer excellent food in more than adequate quantities. However, if you have particular dietary requirements or are fussy about your food, you should check to see if your requirements can be accommodated. Better boats can offer a choice and will vary menus to suit requirements e.g. vegetarian choices, omitting particular foods.

Transfer Arrangements

What is the distance between the boat and the airport? Some boats are moored literally hours away from the airport. This may be necessary, but you need to be aware if you are facing a four-hour journey after the flight. What will happen on the last night/day of your holiday? The boat will typically return to its mooring for the last night of your holiday and remain there for the final day with no diving on offer. Will you stay on the boat or be taken to a local hotel for this time? What are the accommodations? If you stay on the boat, when will you have to leave your cabin? Will a day cabin for changing/showering be made available? When is the last meal of the holiday?

Tipping

Most boat crew supplement their income by tips from the paying customers. Hopefully the crew will have made such a positive difference to your holiday that this is not an issue. What is the tipping policy on the boat? This can vary between no policy to an aggressively enforced tipping policy. Most operators suggest that if the service was excellent and the crew are deserving, guests leave a tip equal to 10 to 15% of the trip fee. Bear in mind that the crew who expect to receive the maximum tip may well provide a hugely superior service to the crew of a boat where there is no tip expected.

Price

Top rated boats generally charge between USD325 to 375 per night. Specialized charters like "fly-in" great white shark trips are going to cost more. Common sense should tell you that you are not going to get the same quality of experience on a boat that costs £500 per week in comparison to the top boats that still cost £900 per week. The important issue is whether the differences in experience are important to you. These differences are probably accounted for in the topics discussed above. The average standard live aboard will not provide many, if any, of the extra services listed under each topic. It will not be air-conditioned, you will be sleeping in bunks, there will probably only be a maximum of three dives a day. As long as you know what you are getting for your money and have made a decision based on a full knowledge and understanding of the facts, you should not be disappointed.