Are you a diver ready to take the leap — or, more accurately, the giant stride entry, hardy har — into liveaboard diving? You’re in for a treat. If you’re sitting at home thinking, “what in the six-sided starfish is a liveaboard?!,” it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like: a dive boat with cabins that divers live on for anywhere from a few nights to a few weeks.
If there’s one thing I don’t like about diving — and, not that you need the reminder, but there are about a billion things I do like about it — it’s the production it takes to get underwater. Setting up and breaking down and rinsing and storing gear, getting to and from the boat and to and from the dive site, getting dressed and undressed and doing it all over and over again every day.
A liveaboard eliminates all that drama and lets you enjoy dive after dive from your home away from home floating on the sea. You can access more remote areas, get away from the crowds, and disconnect in a truly unique way. Essentially, it’s the closest thing to becoming a mermaid without growing a tail (though if anyone has any leads on the tail-growing, please hit me up immediately.)
After two liveaboards, one in the Bahamas and one in Egypt, and one quasi-liveaboard in Panama, I’m now officially hooked — and have about a billion more on my bucket list (I can’t tell you how many times I tried to join my friends for one in Thailand or Burma — my dance card has been pretty full the last ten years!) While three hardly makes me an expert, a decade deep in the dive industry absorbing the advice and ideas of those around me has given me some true insight into how to make your first liveaboard a success. Ready for my top liveaboard tips and my ultimate liveaboard packing list?
Let’s dive in! (I’m sorry. I can’t help myself.)
1. Find the right itinerary for you
Finding the right liveaboard can be overwhelming. Enter PADI Travel, who I used to find my own Red Sea liveaboard. PADI Travel launched this year to combine the reliability of the world’s most trusted and recognized diving agency with the expertise of a dive travel agency with decades of experience, and have a rapidly expanding repertoire of the world’s top dive resorts and liveaboards — not to mention a super fun search feature.
Chances are, when it comes to your dream liveaboard you already have an area of the world in mind — The Red Sea, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, etc. But if not, you can literally search the entire world!
You can filter by desired month of travel or your earliest departure date, trip duration (anything from 1-19 nights), price, experience level (ie. number of required logged dives), and languages spoken by the crew.
If you know where you want to go, you can narrow things down by specific route or departure harbor, whereas if you’re wide open on the destination, you can daydream by searching via iconic marine life, or themes like photography, wrecks, eco-travel, tec-diving, non-diver friendly (for those traveling with a partner), and more.
Looking for a certain level of luxury? No problem. Filter by nitrox availability, wifi, air-conditioning, and facilities like hot tubs, spas, and fitness centers.
Looking for a bargain? Last minute bookings are a great option. Having a flexible travel schedule and standard for comfort will help you get the best price.
Viola! The perfect liveboard will appear.
2. Dive green
I don’t know about you, but falling head over fins for diving really turned me into an ocean advocate.
How to protect the beautiful, delicate underwater worlds we go to such lengths to explore on a liveaboard? Start with the basics: Leave only bubbles, take only pictures. Practice good buoyancy control — challenge yourself to complete your entire dive with your hands clasped, and consider taking the PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy course before your departure if you don’t feel confident in your ability to avoid damaging the reef with your fins, your body or your dive gear. Don’t feed fish, and politely express your concerns over the practice if you end up unknowingly diving with operators who do. If you see garbage on your dive and you can remove it safely (more on this in an upcoming post!), do so. Perhaps even float the idea of a cleanup dive onboard, like we did.
And don’t forget the products you use onboard will literally be washing into the sea, so be sure to pack reef-safe sunscreen, leave-in conditioner, and beyond — read more on this below.
If your operator uses single use bottled water, tell them how much you’d love to see large jugs of filtered water you could refill your own reusable bottle with.
Want more tips for how to be a green diver? Read on, here!
3. Pack light — but right
I’m not kidding about the packing light! First of all, liveaboard cabins are generally pretty tiny. Second of all, you really don’t need much, so why waste time sorting through it all every time you need to grab a dry bikini?
Find my full liveaboard packing list, here!
4. Nitrox to the max
You got your nitrox card, this is your big moment! Diving enriched air allows you to dive safer, stay deeper longer, and feel less wiped when you surface, and it’s never more beneficial than on a liveaboard.
On my first liveaboard, I wasn’t yet Nitrox certified (and I’m not sure if they had it anyway, as it was such a budget friendly boat). On my second, no way. For Egypt, I was ready to throw down and dive nitrox the whole trip — alas, they only allotted us two tanks per person as there was no nitrox compressor onboard, but dang did we feel great after those dives! If diving enriched air throughout the course of a liveaboard is important to you — I know I sound like a broken record here, but it’s great for yup, repetitive diving! — use the search feature on PADI Travel to look for that specifically.
Read my review of the PADI Enriched Air Diver speciality course here.
5. Don’t burn out
It’s tempting to get your money’s worth and try to do every. single. dive. on the itinerary. If you have the energy, go for it! But there’s also something delicious about enjoying your time onboard. Be warned though — that’s definitely the dive when you’re group will see a whale shark, ha ha.
If you know you want to take a dive off, discreetly ask for the dive guide’s advice. Typically, they’ll level with you and tell you what’s not to miss and what’s kinda meh.
Liveaboards are small, confined spaces and you might burn out not just on diving but on socializing. If you need some alone time, don’t be afraid to go to your cabin, or simply pop in your headphones to signal you need some space. I went to bed an hour or two earlier than everyone else on my Egyptian liveaboard, just to have some alone time to read and space out in silence at the end of the day.
Try to take care of yourself — stretch, drink lots of water, and sleep plentifully. Also, stay as zen as possible. Try to keep to the boat’s schedule so you aren’t rushing around. First of all, that’s no fun, and second of all, that’s when accidents happen (like flooded strobes, ugh).
6. Tip the crew
Our biggest blunder of our Egyptian liveaboard was not having a tipping plan in place before we left the shore. About halfway through the trip we looked at each other like crap, how much are we supposed to tip?! We tried using Kat’s sketchy phone service to scour the internet for a guideline. We found that 10-20% of the price of the trip is pretty average. We tipped at the top end, over 20%, because it was a very affordable liveaboard and we thought the staff shouldn’t suffer for that. Don’t be afraid, however, to write ahead to the liveaboard company and ask what the usual tipping range is.
We also panicked on the last day that some of the other guests onboard might not be hip to the tip situation (ahem, the Europeans), and made sure to pointedly discuss our tipping plan with them. I know, I know, tipping is a broken system and it can be stressful and confusing and it sucks — but it’s not the staff’s fault.
Small gifts from home are also special and appreciated (not in place of a monetary tip, but in addition to!) as are kudos delivered to the employer. We didn’t pack anything to give the crew — oops — but we did write a review on the King Snefro Facebook that specifically raved about Ahmed, so his bosses would know what an outstanding job he was doing. Tripadvisor, sadly, doesn’t really have liveaboard reviews, but PADI tracks and publishes kudos about their wonderful members! Send praise to to QM@padi.com.
And don’t forget to enjoy your crew’s company, too. Ask them about their lives, their experiences, their families. It’s such a unique conversation to learn about a new culture and get to know someone, someone who literally can’t escape your questions! Ha. Just kidding… kind of.
On that note, never underestimate how much knowledge your dive guide has to share. Snap photos of sea creatures you don’t recognize and ask them to ID them, ask them all about the history of the wreck you’re about to dive, ask them where you should go diving next. If there’s some aspect of diving you’re feeling leery about, pull them aside for a chat — conversation is the enemy of fears and anxieties!
7. Prepare yourself
Brush up on your buddy check procedures. Service and check all your gear ahead of time, and know how to use it. I showed up for my most recent liveaboard with dead dive light batteries and no carabiner to clip my camera to my BCD. Facepalms all around.
And brush up on any dive skills you might be rusty on. We joked ahead of time that we should have taken the much-mocked PADI Surface Marker Buoy Diver distinctive speciality in preparation for this trip, since we realized we hadn’t deployed one in years. In retrospect, joke was on us and it would have been wise to practice in a pool.
Again, thoroughly read your booking confirmation for instructions on certifications, visas, and beyond. A couple on our boat didn’t realize they needed a full Egyptian visa to enter Ras Mohammed National Park and had to go all the way back to the airport to get one after boarding.
If you have medical concerns, talk to a diving doctor ahead of time. You don’t want a lingering stress nagging in the back of your mind when you’re about to gear up.
Finally, put an auto-responder on your email. We had sporadic service and when we had it, the last thing I wanted to do was worry about work.
8. Cover yourself
Many liveaboards will require you to get diving insurance, but really, you should have it regardless. Travel insurance is also highly recommended, and unfortunately they tend to be separate policies. However, World Nomads offers both! Check out their scuba dive insurance, and their travel insurance offerings.
Regardless of what insurance you chose, read the fine print carefully. Check the policy for coverage of hyperbaric chamber visits, which can be financially crippling if they aren’t covered.
9. Educate yourself
Consider turning your liveaboard into a classroom at sea. If you’re not already a PADI Advanced Open Water diver, this is a great time to do that course since there’s little to no lectures or book work, and you won’t be left out off night dives or depths of over 60ft.
Depending on the itinerary, liveaboards can also be the perfect time to enroll in a continuing education course like Enriched Air Diver or Wreck Diver. You’re already doing the dives, why not walk away with a new skill set and cert card under your weight belt?
10. Start saving for the next one
Yes, already! Why? They’re addictive. I know I’m already full of ideas for where to go next…
Maybe I’ll let you guys pick. Where should my next liveaboard be?
This post was brought to you by PADI Travel.