Dive liveaboards

By Fiona McIntosh

Those seeking remote dive adventures and ocean-bound escapes will be familiar with the freedom a liveaboard trip offers. Liveaboards are popular in the Red Sea, throughout the Caribbean and Pacific islands and of course around the Galapagos and Barrier Reef – in fact, just about anywhere where there’s fun to be had on the ocean without the crowds. And there has recently been an upsurge in interest in liveaboard yachts plying the waters of east Africa and the Indian Ocean – when it comes to exploring a nation composed of 1 192 beautiful coral islands you need to be mobile. So if you’re heading for Maldives then a liveaboard is the way to go. So too with the scattered outer islands of the ImageSeychelles, the Quirimbas archipelago of northern Mozambique and particularly the Comores, which are, shall we say, less than luxurious by land. Not that being cooped up in a boat is for everyone.

I had reservations when I boarded my first liveaboard yacht – It was headed for Bassas da India, an atoll in the Mozambique Channel famed for its diving and fishing. The thought of a two day sail or motor each way and sharing a small space with a group of 11 strangers for 10 days was a trifle unnerving. But there was no other way to this amazing reef so I took the plunge and returned a convert. Since then I’ve been privileged to explore much of the southern Indian Ocean on boat-based dive trips. Here are just a few local trips on offer.

The ultimate

Aldabra, Seychelles
This is my dream – and I suspect that I share it with a few of you! The ultimate liveaboard dive adventure has to be to the World Heritage Site of Aldabra. Sea Star, the most modern boat in the Silhouette Cruises fleet, cruises the southern atolls of Seychelles over the December to March period taking in Assumption, Cosmoledo, Aldabra and Astove, or you can hop aboard the Indian Ocean Explorer. And if Aldabra’s out of your budget, Seychelles is still a great place for a yacht-based holiday with numerous options to suit all tastes and budgets. If you want a classic holiday – sailing an elegant schooner around the most beautiful islands in the world – Silhouette Cruises offers week-long cruises around the inner isles. A fully equipped PADI dive centre with a resident instructor, the yacht also carries kayaks, waterskiing equipment and a range of other toys on all regular trips and can be chartered for dive or other specialised holidays. Indian Ocean Explorer also offers custom and regular cruises around the inner islands, Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, as well as to the Amirantes Islands. They can also arrange trips on demand to explore lesser known regions such as Chagos – islands located between the Seychelles and the Maldives that can only be reached by special permit.

Spoil yourself

Maldives
With over 80 safari boats cruising around the archipelago you’re spoilt for choice if you want a dive holiday in the Maldives. And for me it’s the only way to go – though Maldivian resort-based holidays are great, a liveaboard allows you to explore, stopping to dive with the big pelagics and on the walls and coral overhangs that the Maldives is famous for. Of course you can also take advantage of impromptu opportunities – like when you suddenly want to hop in with Manta rays, dolphins and Whale sharks around the boat. Oceanic Vision are specialists in the Maldives with routes varying according to season and guest preference, while you can also book the luxurious Monsoon liveaboard through Pro Dive and sail from Kuredu to Noonu Atoll. If you’re a land-lubber at heart who gets seasick at the sight of a wave, Maldives is a good choice since much of the sailing is within the lagoons so the waters are rarely too rough. And, with its crystal clear warm waters and tropical landscapes, Maldives is the ideal romantic holiday – intersperse great diving with surface time chilling out on the sundeck, snorkelling, dolphin watching and trips ashore to deserted tropical islands with the quintessential palm trees, aquamarine water and white sandy beaches, or to the ‘tourist islands’ for a bit of retail therapy.

Local is lekker

Mozambique
The little island of Inhaca in the bay of Maputo is a well-kept secret when it comes to diving and snorkelling. Marine Safaris offer three to five night yacht-based trips from Inhaca and longer trips around the Bazaruto Archipelago from Vilanculos. The catamarans are equipped for fishing, diving and snorkelling but divers need to bring their own personal dive gear.

Another great short break is a two or three day dhow cruise with Sailaway Dhow Safaris around the islands of the Bazaruto National Park. The five islands – Bazaruto, the largest, Benguerra, Magaruque, Santa Carolina (or Paradise Island) and the tiny, uninhabited Bangue – are real Robinson Crusoe-style deserted island escapes with high dunes covered in colourful sprawling creepers, fresh water crocodile-infested lakes, swaying palm trees and sandy beaches littered with pansy shells which are lapped by clear, piercing-blue water. As you cruise around you’re often treated to sightings of turtles and Humpback and Spinner dolphins and even while snorkelling you can really enjoy the colourful corals, diverse tropical fish and even big pelagics such as Manta rays. The trip is aimed primarily at those wanting to snorkel or free dive, but scuba diving can be organised if requested in advance.

Further north, at Nacala Bay, Bay Diving offer scuba diving and free diving adventures from Ietermagog, a 42-foot liveaboard dhow which was built from scratch in solid teak. Styled on a traditional Arab jahazi sailing dhow, she boasts an inboard motor, can sleep six guests and is perfect for day trips to secluded beaches within the bay, winter whale watching or tailor-made adventures to the pristine dive sites and islands out in the open ocean. Full participation is encouraged so you can have fun mastering the ancient art of dhow sailing as you hoist the boom and pull the sails.

Zanj Explorer also offers seasonal diving, fishing and surfing charters in Mozambique as she makes her way up the east African coast while Oceans Islands Safaris and Marine Safaris specialise in diving charters in northern Mozambique’s Quirimbas archipelago. The unspoilt string of islands is one of the hottest island hopping destinations in southern Africa – liveaboard yachts give access to the inhabited islands of Quilálea, Ibo, Rolas, Medjumbe and Matemo and offer a range of activities from scuba diving to tours of the historical sites.

For something different

Malawi
Lake Malawi, the third largest of the Rift Valley Lakes, is certainly big enough to justify a sailing, fishing or diving holiday. Danforth Yachting’s Mafusa, a 38-foot ocean-going catamaran which sleeps eight, is available for charter on the lake, which, with its clear warm water and colourful cichlids (pretty little fish) is a fabulous place to swim, snorkel and dive. And, being fresh water, Lake Malawi is a fabulous place to learn the skills of diving.

An all-time classic

Zanzibar/Pemba
If you want to explore Zanzibar’s lesser-known reefs and Pemba’s big walls, then a liveaboard is the way to go. Both Oceans Islands Safaris and Marine Safaris will book you a trip, while from the end of 2008 Zanj Explorer will have set itineraries and charters opportunities around Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia Island. The 70-foot yacht, which can accommodate up to 10 people, is fully kitted out with diving gear, including a 190 litre per minute Bauer diving compressor, fishing gear, sea kayaks and more. While diving is always on the menu, they try to focus on the Imagebest activities at each location – so fishing and surfing safaris are also options. Charters are flexible in duration, and since they have a large water desalinator and three freezers on board, yacht Zanj is really geared to spending long periods of time in really remote places.

Something a little exotic

Madagascar
A liveaboard is the ideal way to experience the wonders of Madagascar – there are none of the terrestrial annoyances, mosquitoes, sandflies or horrendous roads, only the sound of the sea, great Creole food and a score of beautiful islands to explore. Most trips depart from the perfumed isle, Nosy Be, in the northwest where there is great diving on the drop-off and out-lying islands as well as around the wilder Mitsio archipelago. Animaltracks Islandventures, Unusual Destinations, Jenman Safaris, True Blue, Zanj Explorer and Indian Ocean Explorer all offer dive and other adventures around these shores.

Be adventurous

Comores and Réunion
If you really want something different try the Comores. Oceans Islands Safaris organise private charters (for a minimum of nine days) to Comores (and Réunion) on an ad hoc basis, usually in a 55-foot Motor cat equipped for diving – with or without a DM on board.

Choosing a liveaboard – a few pointers

Safety

I sailed to Bassas da India on Yacht Mieke. A year later she sank and now lies in a watery grave at the bottom of the Mozambique Channel. Fortunately all aboard escaped to safety but it was a wake-up call. It is worth checking what safety equipment is on board – lifeboats, radio/telephone communications, sonar, dive transmitters, oxygen and the like. Booking through a recognised tour operator should ensure that someone has checked out the vessel in this regard.

Your companions

How many other guests can the boat accommodate – and how many are booked on your trip? On my first liveaboard trip a honeymooning couple who thought that they had booked their own private charter were moved on to our boat at the last minute when their vessel was unavailable. Initially they were, not surprisingly, somewhat unhappy. But we gave them the best cabin and kept out of their way as much as possible and it worked out fine. If you’re travelling alone and want to meet other divers you might want to book onto a large boat in the hope of finding like-minded sorts, while if you want an intimate experience with a group of mates, choose a boat to accommodate your group size. Remember that if you are travelling alone you may well have to share a cabin. Finally, it’s worth asking where the other bookings are from. You don’t want to end up being the only English speakers on a boatload of Koreans whose dietary preferences include the ubiquitous kimchi.

The diving

Get the itinerary in advance and check that it suits your skill level and includes the sites you want to dive. How many dives can you make per day? Is there more than one tender boat available so that groups of different skill levels/requirements can be catered for?

Dive equipment

An obvious one so I won’t go into too much detail. But is the capacity of the compressors, the qualifications of the dive staff and the amount of rental equipment on board going to meet your expectations? Is nitrox available? Are dive courses on offer? What are the arrangements for gear storage, kitting up and getting to the dive sites? Detail in this regard can make or break a holiday.

Travelling time between sites Image

On many of the more adventurous dive trips you will be motoring all night, often through rough seas, to get to the next dive location, so sleep and seasickness can be problems. Go prepared mentally – but also with appropriate medication if necessary.

The configuration of the boat

Do all cabins have their own private entrances? I once ended up in a cabin that was the ‘passageway’ through to another smaller cabin. Fortunately the occupant of said cubby-hole was charming and discreet but now I insist on my own exclusive entrance!

Bathrooms

If you are fussy about your ablutions (or get seasick) then you will probably want an en-suite – and if you are not used to life on the ocean waves, preferably with a proper flush loo.

Comfort

Is there a desalinator on board? Oh boy, does that make a difference if you’re on a long charter or heading for remote spots where you can’t refill the tanks. I was once on a yacht with some delightful Italian divas who exhausted the entire weeks water supply in less than two days. Showering in sea water is just not the same. And since most of the trips mentioned are in tropical waters you might also want to check that cabins have air-conditioning. And that there is plenty of fridge space for beers. Oh, and if you are prone to seasickness choose the type of vessel carefully – long, steel hulled boats are more stable than wooden ones.

Shore visits

Even with a bunch of mates you can get cabin fever. How often can you expect to go ashore? How much flexibility is there in the programme?

Extras

What is excluded from the published price? Check for hidden extras such as park fees, dive permits, fuel surcharges and gear hire, which can really sting if you haven’t read the small print. What tips are recommended/expected?

Author: Fiona McIntosh