|WE ARE SAILING|
Liveaboard holidays can be great fun - as long as you pick a reliable vessel that suits your needs, and don't make expect a luxury floating hotel if you're paying bargain prices. Good planning is the key, and this guide is here to help you through the initial stages
AT THE RISK OF KICKING OFF ON A DOWNER, a famous Red Sea liveaboard, Coral Queen, sank recently. It has since been refloated; it was not the first passenger boat to hit a reef in recent years, and it probably won't be the last.
Inevitably, questions are being asked about what happened, but the point of mentioning it at all here is to underline that, however celebrated a liveaboard may be, no mode of transport in the world is accident-proof. All we can do when choosing a car, train, boat or plane is to inform ourselves as well as possible and so minimise the risks.
Risk assessment doesn't refer only to safety, however - it refers to your chances of having a rotten holiday and wishing you weren't stuck in some dived-out part of the world with a load of people you don't like and no means of escape until the end of the fortnight!
Now for the upside: there are hundreds of great diving liveaboards from which to choose, and only in this exhaustively researched DIVER Guide will you find so many in one place, laid out to make basic comparisons easy. There is a lot to take into account, as you will see, but remember, with liveaboards you are well advised to go for the best you can afford. If you see an amazing bargain, it may well be because customers are giving that boat a wide berth.
Assuming that you are sold on the idea of liveaboards as a relaxing way to reach places you wouldn't otherwise dive, our guide is the jumping-off point for planning your next trip.
We have listed 270 boats around the world, with their basic specifications. These aren't recommendations, but many are included because they are represented by UK tour operators.
A Anderson, 029 20401488
AC Andy Cuthbertson, 01856 850879
Aq Aquatours, 020 8398 0505
BO2 blue o two, 0871 7115402
BT Barefoot Traveller, 020 8741 4319
C Crusader, 020 8744 0474
DQ Dive Quest, 01254 826322
DT Dive Tours, 01244 401177
DW Diving World, 020 74070019
DWw Dive Worldwide, 0845 1306980
E Explorers, 0845 6447090
F Fins, 01772 772400
FD Family Diving, 01285 869679
GW Gordon Wadsworth, 07775 851150
HJ Hayes & Jarvis, 0870 3661636
ID In Depth, 0870 3661636
K Kuoni, 01306 747006
L Libra, 0870 241 5187
Ld Longwood, 020 8418 2570
MP Mervyn Pirie, 01856 771314
MST Maldives Scuba Tours, 01449 780220
N Neilson, 0870 3669567
NL Northern Light, 01631 740595
O Oonasdivers, 01323 648924
PT Philippine Travel, 0870 2418420
R Regaldive, 0870 2201777
RSD Red Sea Divers, 08704430311
S Sportif, 01273 844919
Sn Snooba, 0870 162 0767
SS Scuba Safaris, 01342 851196
Sy Symbiosis, 0845 1232844
TB Tony Backhurst, 0800 0728221
XO XO Holidays, 0870 486 7580
You can of course arrange your trip directly with liveaboard owners via the Internet and email, but with a recognised tour operator you should be able to assume that it has checked out the vessel on your behalf. You can pick up a phone to ask questions and expect to get answers. The operator can arrange flights and transfers if required, and you also have someone closer to home to deal with should anything go haywire.
What do you need to know to reduce the risk of a bum trip? First, is the liveaboard a suitable size for you? Do you want a lively one with 20 or more guests, or an intimate experience for six, in which case you may consider chartering the vessel with friends. If the number of passengers is more than twice the number of cabins, three or more single travellers may have to share.
Not everyone likes sharing, even if you don't spend that much time in your cabin. With the wrong cabin-mate(s), you might find that you end up sleeping under the stars a lot, even in poor weather!
Steel hulls are better than wooden ones if you are doing anything but sheltered-water voyaging. They give a more stable ride in the open ocean, where wooden-hulled vessels may cause their occupants to turn green and lose their appetites.
If you are prone to seasickness, a longer-hulled vessel may prove more stable (though such boats are likely to carry more passengers). It may also be prudent to ensure that you have private accommodation and en suite facilities.
Make sure that the liveaboard's point of departure is convenient in terms of available flights and transfers. Now, does it visit the sites you want to dive? Unless you are easy-going and enjoy surprises, make sure you know what the itinerary is in advance, and that any deviation will come about only of dire necessity (severe weather etc).
Also check that the type of diving suits your skill level. If you are still feeling your way, for example, it might be premature to book onto a trip involving a lot of challenging bluewater dives in strong currents, or deep wreck penetrations.
Some liveaboards allow divers to make four, five or even six dives a day if they want to, so if you like to be in and out of the water every few hours, make sure you will get the chance.
What are the diving facilities like? Nitrox on tap will be welcome if you are likely to be doing a lot of repetitive diving. If you are a rebreather or technical diver, make sure that the liveaboard operator is used to accommodating divers like you.
What diving equipment and spares are carried aboard? Are there facilities for photographers to prepare/recharge their gear and possibly to develop slide film? Is there sufficient safety equipment, good radio/telephone communications (also handy for calling home), sonar, oxygen, lifeboats etc, and are the crew fully trained to use it?
Are the entry and exit arrangements to your taste? Will you be jumping straight off the liveaboard, or does it have one or more tenders? If it does, you'll be able to access awkward sites more easily, won't all be getting in each other's way and will have fewer long surface swims back to the liveaboard.
Other questions concern those factors that affect your comfort. You are on holiday, after all. Are freshwater supplies adequate, and is the plumbing and air-conditioning reliable? Lack of showers, overflowing toilets or sauna-like cabins can really mar your liveaboard experience.
A water-maker is worth stipulating, as it ensures that fresh water never runs out, and if there is no air-con in a tropical climate, you may want to think twice about that vessel.
It helps to know that the galley is clean and the food varied, plentiful and to your taste. Are all drinks included in the price, or do you have to pay for soft drinks along with beer, wine etc?
All-inclusive may not be what it seems, so check for other hidden extras, for gear-hire, film-processing, visas and diving permits, courses and so on. Check what the standard tip is - gratuities can be quite hefty.
Most important, see if you can find out how experienced the skipper, crew and dive guides are, and whether the owner is someone who takes a pride in high-quality service. The human element can really make or break your holiday.
For such sensitive enquiries, it helps to choose a liveaboard for which plentiful information is available from friends, family or DIVER articles, though bear in mind that things such as staff or maintenance levels can change fast. Another idea is to ask if you can contact recent passengers for references, though you may be offered a rather selective list. You can also ask other divers to relate their experiences on the DIVERNet forum.
|* denotes flights included|
Diving liveaboards are not scattered equally around the world. As you will see in the tables over the following pages, there are very few in the Mediterranean, for example, whereas the choice in the Red Sea is colossal. We have followed the market.
The vessels are divided into four broad price categories, per day per passenger: A (up to £75), B (£75-100), C (£100-125), D (£125-150, E (£150-175) and F (£175-plus). A few prices with an asterisk include flights, as some operators cannot separate the two, Prices exclude extras such as departure tax and tips.
"E6" refers to photoprocessing and "CCR" to closed-circuit rebreathers.