Recreational scuba diving is becoming more popular all the time. The age limits, at both the young end and the old, are increasing as it is no longer seen as an extreme sport. It’s an outdoor activity that’s healthy and usually educates us to better protect the world around us. In addition to the increasing number of people who are scuba diving nowadays, more and more diving locations are being found and explored. This includes in lakes & seas of countries which were already popular for scuba diving as well as at new scuba diving countries around the world. For the majority of recreational scuba divers, warm water with lots of colourful life is the best place to dive. Therefore, the tropical and sub-tropical seas of the world are where most divers are attracted to. Asia is home to thousands of excellent dive sites, and many of these are in Indonesia, Thailand & The Maldives. Malaysia and Burma also have growing diving industries.
Many scuba diving tourists travel from their home countries, where maybe the diving isn’t so good or there’s no diving. Therefore, when they visit places like Thailand, Indonesia or The Maldives, they often want to do as many dives as possible, within budget and possibly without upsetting any non-diving travel companions. Liveaboard scuba diving in South-East Asia and the Maldives is a wonderful holiday activity. More diving tourists and more liveaboard diving boats means more competition, and less complacency by those who used to monopolise the market. There’s also a wider range of options, both in the luxury/budget level of the boats and in the diving locations. Boat builders and owners are always looking for niches in the market to exploit, and previously-unknown reefs are being discovered all the time. Add to this the fact that once-remote locations are now getting new airports and budget airline travel and all of a sudden you can go diving anywhere! So what’s stopping you?
The numbers of people learning to scuba dive in Asia, doing advanced or speciality courses, and joining day trips are increasing steadily, but the biggest rises tend to be in liveaboard diving in South-East Asia and The Maldives. Liveaboard diving is when guests sleep on the boat. Depending on the diving location, the boat’s size and budget, liveaboard trips range in length from two days & one night to more than two weeks. However, the average liveaboard trip length is four or five days in Thailand, one week in The Maldives, and five to twelve days in Indonesia. It all depends on the location of the port and the dive sites. Choosing the best liveaboard dive cruise for your needs is never easy, mainly due to the wide choice, but also due to there always being some kind of sacrifice. The choice doesn’t just include the boats. You have to think about the destination, trip length, cabin type, and the expected diving conditions on your chosen dates. As for sacrifices, living on a boat is neither cheap nor is it the easiest thing to do for many people. Continue reading to learn more about liveaboard diving in Asia, and how to make the best decisions when choosing your next liveaboard scuba trip.
Liveaboard diving in Thailand is a well-established industry, that is also regulated, and the market is competitive. Therefore, there are plenty of options for divers to choose from. Almost all Thailand liveaboard diving takes place on the country’s west coast, in the Andaman Sea. While Koh Tao may be the place where more new divers are certified than anywhere else in the world, the dive sites, dive centres and types of customer at Koh Tao aren’t best suited to liveaboard diving. Most of the dive sites in Koh Tao aren’t too far from land, and most divers are either new to diving, on a backpacker-type budget, or both. Therefore the local businesses don’t see the market for liveaboard diving in The Gulf of Thailand. A couple of Similan liveaboards go around to Koh Tao during the Similan low season, but in general there are none or almost none there for most of the year. Another area that is much better than Koh Tao or anywhere in The Gulf, and on its day can be better than The Similans, is Hin Daeng, Hin Muang & Koh Haa. However, there aren’t as many dive sites here as there are at The Similans, and therefore fewer liveaboard diving boats visit.
Similan Islands liveaboards are by far the most popular and most numerous of liveaboard diving boats in Thailand. The Similan Islands (also Richelieu Rock, which is actually part of the Surin National Marine Park) are without doubt the best dive sits in Thailand. Also, their distance from the mainland and the high number of great dive sites means that diving at The Similans on a liveaboard boat is much more practical than day trip diving there. While most boats sail from a place called Khao Lak, in Phang Nga, there are some that sail from Phuket and a few that sail from Ranong. Liveaboard diving at the Similan Islands can be done on a wide range of budgets, and the trip lengths can vary from overnight to a week or more. To be honest, six diving days is a realistic maximum unless the trip also ventures into a different area. A few boats combine The Similans, with Koh Haa / Hin Daeng, which really is seeing all the best of Thailand’s dive sites.
Many of the Similan liveaboard diving boats are quite similar in appearance and guest capacity, but there are some exceptions. Many are old fishing boats converted for diving, and if they’re less than 26 metres in length, they’re likely to have wooden hulls. Newer, larger and purpose-built diving liveaboards are generally around 28-40 metres in length and on steel hulls. Guest capacity ranges from 10 to around 30 divers, but the average is around 20-25. The most common trip length is four days & four nights, with around 14 dives. Diving conditions are generally fine for all levels of diver, and courses are available. Richelieu Rock is better for divers with experience, as is Koh Tachai. Most boats offer private en suite bathrooms for some cabins, while the better boats’ cabins are all en suite. Prices vary greatly, but if you think about $200 USD / diver / day you can get some idea of what to budget for. Some boats can be as little as $100/day, and the other end of the spectrum is considerably more.
Koh Haa & Hin Daeng/Muang liveaboard diving boats are almost always Similan boats that are combining trips to both destinations. Therefore the size, design, facilities and guest capacities are the same, and prices aren’t much different either. Trips to this area (which is a few hours south-east of Phuket) tend to be three days and three nights in length, or possibly a little shorter. As for the dive sites, Hin Daeng & Hin Muang are similar to Richelieu Rock for marine life and the level of experience of divers best suited to visit. Koh Haa and Koh Phi Phi are ideal for all levels of divers, including beginners and even those who are learning to dive in Thailand.
Liveaboard diving in Indonesia is quite different from Thailand, and even within Indonesia there is a very wide range of diving conditions, boat types, trip lengths and the prices you can expect to pay. Indonesia is the largest single-country archipelago in the world, and it spans several time zones as well as both the northern and southern hemispheres. For this reason alone, it’s easy to understand why liveaboard diving in Indonesia is so variable. Currently, the two best-known areas for Indonesian liveaboard diving are Komodo and Raja Ampat, but there is much more. More and more boats are starting to offer ‘crossing trips’ which involve the boats sailing from one area to another, and these are often when the diving season in the areas changes. There are also more and more ‘adventure expedition trips’ which don’t guarantee lots of wonderful dives simply because the captains and tour leaders are hoping to find new and unexplored dive sites. Included in longer and more adventurous Indonesian liveaboard diving cruises are places such as Ambon, Maumere, Alor, Sulawesi, The forgotten Islands, Banda Sea and Cenderawasih Bay.
Indonesian liveaboard diving boats vary a lot in size, and their trips vary even more in price & itinerary. Most of the boats are designed in the Phinisi (Schooner) style, which is a two-mast sailing boat. Phinisi boats are a very popular traditional design, originally from the island of Sulawesi (Celebes). However, just because so many Indonesian liveaboards look old, most of them are new and a lot more luxurious than their appearance suggests. When compared to diving liveaboards in Thailand, the Indonesian boats normally take fewer guests, which means the space per guest is similar. Unlike Thai liveaboards which have a modern design with a large flat dive platform near the water’s surface, diving from an Indonesian Phinisi usually involves the use of a tender vessel or dinghy. Most can sail on the wind, but almost all are equipped with motors, as well as modern safety, navigation and communication equipment. The average number of guests on a Phinisi liveaboard in Indonesia is 8-12, while a few larger boats can take more.
In addition to the Phinisi schooners, there is a growing number of steel-hulled purpose-built Indonesian diving liveaboard boats, and these are large, usually quite luxurious, and they obviously offer more practicality at the expense of style and character. Air-conditioned cabins & saloon lounges complement the large sundecks and open-air dining areas. Of course, they have both large, flat dive platforms and tender dinghies, as well.
Diving areas in Indonesia are far too numerous to count, never mind name & describe. Geographically, they range from the west coast of Sumatra all the way over to the large island of Papua, a straight-line distance of more than 5,000 kilometres. The waters of Indonesia have been a source of human food for thousands of years, but of course in the past few decades the locals learned to use destructive fishing methods, including dynamite and bottom trawling. While some locals are coming to realise that the short-term benefits don’t come close to matching the long-term effect, the message will take a very long time to be fully understood. However, some of the diving areas in Indonesia are too far away for local fishermen to destroy, and many are under the protection of the law. National Marine Parks are being established and more steps are being taken every year to advance the protection of these reefs, which are home to more marine species than anywhere else on earth. From majestic Whale Sharks and Giant Manta Rays to the tiniest Pigmy Seahorses and Mimic Octopuses, almost any species of tropical fish, reptile or invertebrate can be seen when diving in Indonesia.
Liveaboard diving in The Maldives is very popular, and for good reason. Although regarded by many as a destination for couples on honeymoon, there is a huge scuba diving industry in The Maldives, and this is supported by a vast area of world-class diving sites which are spread around many tiny tropical islands. Due to its geographical locations, The Maldives is supplied by a huge amount of nutrient-rich water from the deep areas of The Indian Ocean in all directions. Therefore, all year round there is a lot of healthy marine life, and plenty for divers to see. Resort diving in The Maldives is popular for those who want to enjoy the comfort of their bungalow or villa, but each dive is limited due to its distance from the resort or island-based dive centre. To enjoy the best diving in The Maldives, a liveaboard cruise is essential.
Maldives diving liveaboards are very similar to each other in design, and usually very luxurious. Nearly all of our Maldives diving boats are modern, purpose built, and have private en suite bathrooms in all cabins, & large air-conditioned lounge saloons. Also, most Maldives liveaboards are just for relaxing on. There is no ‘wet area’ for equipment and noisy compressors, nor is there a diving platform. Instead, liveaboard boats in The Maldives use support vessels (Dhoni) which follow along throughout the cruise. All the diving is done from the Dhoni and this is where the cumbersome, noisy, wet and heavy diving equipment and machinery is kept. The reason for this is to maximise every square metre of space on the main boat, as well as enabling the it to be used for non-diving cruises if required to do so. There are no disadvantages to the guests, but of course the cost of owning and running an extra boat is reflected in the price of the trips.
Typically, Maldives liveaboard diving boats are more than 30 metres in length, and each cabin accommodates no more than two guests. The price paid for cabins on higher decks is usually higher than for lower down. Quite a few liveaboards at The Maldives have a communal Jacuzzi on the top deck, and several have proper bathtubs in guest cabins. Local Divemaster guides and instructors are employed more than foreigners when compared to Thailand.
Scuba diving at The Maldives is something that most recreational divers dream of experiencing at some stage. The reasons for this are the chances of seeing something large, such as a Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) or Manta Rays (Manta alfredi). These gentle giants are often seen by divers at The Maldives, and even when snorkelling or around the boat and sometimes at night. Of course, there is no guarantee of sightings, but the captains and cruise leaders try to plan each Maldives diving cruise to be in the right place at the right time. This is the main reason that liveaboard diving at The Maldives is much better than being based at a resort and joining diving day trips.
The Maldives is a tiny country made up of dozens of tiny islands located in the Indian Ocean. Mother Nature ensures that the archipelago is a magnet for many millions of fish, invertebrates, mammals and reptiles to visit or make a home. Therefore, it has quickly become a magnet for avid scuba divers who want to enjoy some of the best diving in the world.
Maldives liveaboard cruises nearly all depart from and return to Male, which is the country’s capital, has the only international airport, and is located in the middle of the archipelago nation. However, there are several domestic airports to the north and south of Male, and some of our trips use other islands as the departure and/or return ports. Most of our Maldives liveaboard diving trips are one week in length, and many leave and return at the weekend. However, some are 10 or 14 days & nights. In general, guests board during the afternoon of the first day, and disembark in the morning of the final day. The staff and crew work hard to clean, refuel, and prepare the ship to depart again the same day with a new set of diving guests. This process works well for the Maldives diving high season, which is November to April. From May to October, some boats still offer weekly trips, while others are sent for annual renovations and upgrades. Those boats which decide to offer liveaboard cruises all year round tend to adapt the itineraries to enjoy the best diving, sea & weather conditions. Being located out in the ocean of course has its drawbacks, which are winds and the waves that the winds bring. Therefore, the captains need to ensure that the boats are in the best place to get some protection from the islands.
Liveaboard diving in Myanmar (Burma) is fast becoming very popular, and for very good reason. Myanmar was known as Burma for many decades, and was effectively closed to foreign tourism. Only in recent years has the country allowed foreign tourists to enter freely, and this includes for scuba diving trips in Burma. Currently (2017) almost all liveaboard trips in Burma depart from a pier within Thailand (Phang Nga or Ranong), and some of those also do a few dives in Thailand (at Richelieu Rock) before crossing the border. Diving in Burma is very interesting, because there are some reefs and uninhabited tropical islands which are unexplored by westerners. There are also some islands which are home to local village tribes and sea gypsies. Divers in Burma can usually expect to be on the only boat at each dive site, although this can’t be guaranteed. Marine life is abundant and diverse at most reefs, although there is evidence of destructive fishing methods at some. Myanmar / Burma liveaboard diving boats range from simple comfort to luxury. Diving safaris in Myanmar tend to be at least five or six days and nights in length, due to the distances needed to be covered, and the necessary time spent at immigration at the border town of Kawthoung.
Liveaboard diving in Malaysia is not as common as the surrounding countries of Indonesia and Thailand, but it’s still very good, and possible at several budget levels. Most Malaysian diving liveaboard boats are boats that visit The Tioman Islands and the surrounding area, located around 40 km. from Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast. These boats tend to spend most of the year in neighbouring countries, such Thailand’s Similan Islands and Indonesia. They visit Malaysia during the low season of their main countries, which coincides with the high season of Malaysia’s diving sites. There are also one or two liveaboard boats which are based around Sipidan, a world-class diving island in the Celebes Sea on the east coast of Malaysian Borneo, but very close to both Indonesian Borneo and the south-western islands of The Philippines.