Potato grouperOne of the iconic fish in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photograph by Christian Loader
If diving around the clock in lush locales sounds appealing — and why wouldn’t it? — consider a live-aboard in Asia and the vast Pacific regions. Its spectacular diving and unparalled convenience might spoil you for good.
Four Seasons Explorer, Maldives
When I turn to my left and Four Seasons Explorer divemaster Gabriel de Oliviera Lima points to the dark wings soaring inches over my head at Helengeli Thila, I come to the following heretical conclusion: Sometimes lower visibility makes for a better dive. Plankton season (August through October) in the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives draws more than 6,000 manta rays and dozens of whale sharks to the country’s waters, so the slight tropical murk is a condition I’m happy to endure.
Back on the 129-foot Four Seasons Explorer live-aboard, I settle into one of the lounge’s plush sofas with a cold, fresh-pressed “juice of the day” (mango) for a marine-science presentation with biologist Charlotte Hawley. She describes the unique underwater geology our yacht is currently gliding past: Nearly 1,200 islands and several low-lying coral atolls make the Maldives a famous playground for large pelagics. Never has a science lesson been quite so comfortable.
Our four-night cruise winds back and forth between two Four Seasons Maldives properties — smaller, intimate Kuda Huraa and sleek, modern Landaa Giraavaru — stopping at some of the world’s most lusted-after dive sites in between gourmet meals and high-end spa services. At times the cushy banquettes, flat-screen TVs and high-thread-count sheets make it difficult to remember that yes, this is a dive boat I’m cruising on. The Explorer accommodates only 22 passengers in 10 state rooms and one suite (no crowded dive platforms here), and several dive staff on board customize each day’s schedule to the preferences and skill levels of their individual clients.
The itinerary is usually relaxed (guests dive three times per day), which makes it an excellent choice for pros and novices. Nondivers can snorkel, surf, kayak, or simply kick back on the sun deck with made-to-order snacks and cocktails.
For those used to hauling their own gear and filling their own tanks, the Explorer takes dive travel to an almost vertiginous level of luxury. If “full-service diving” sounds a little soft to you at first, trust us: You’ll get used to it. — Bronwen Dickey
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions' Spoilsport, Cairns, Australia
“Shine your dive light into the open water tonight, and if you see two green dots reflected, those are shark eyes. If the dots are this close together,” says trip director Kerrin Jones as he holds his hands about 11 inches apart, “then it’s a whitetip. If you see two green eyes this far apart” — he moves his palms three feet from one another — “then it’s probably two whitetip sharks doing this,” he says, covering an eye. As the joke sets in, Jones winks and the group laughs.
I’m laughing too, but I’ve noticed that dives from Mike Ball’s Spoilsport live-aboard follow the briefings exceptionally closely. Earlier, at Challenger Bay, diagrams directed us to the best branching coral patches. This afternoon, we dive Cod Hole, and everything encountered — from the modest current to the 90 feet of visibility and overly eager potato cod — plays out just as described. Not surprising given that Spoilsport has been a Great Barrier Reef fixture since 1969.
Perhaps Jones is joking, but possibly sighting a massive gray reef shark has my hackles up, until my buddy reminds me that most hunters act as benignly at night as during the day. Accurate dive briefs aside, I also can’t help but notice the airtight schedule, which is impressive considering that a staff of 12 readies 29 guests for up to five dives at three or four sites daily, and prepares three meals, a snack and dessert for all. Plus, bottom time is unrestricted. Buddy pairs can design profiles that best suit their interests. On this mega yacht, you’d your money’s worth.
As we plunge in, I realize that either way I win: If we don’t see this green-eyed night beast, then we’ll delight in the potato cod hunting with the advantage of our lights. And should we see something that quickens our breathing, draining our tanks at an embarrassing rate?
We’ll soon be laughing about that back aboard, toasting XXXX Gold beers to the souvenir tale. — Brooke Morton
Arenui the Boutique Live-aboard, Indonesia
Jacques Cousteau might have introduced us to the Silent World — his groundbreaking 1953 memoir — but, at least aboard Arenui, diving Raja Ampat is anything but. The rich visual tapestry of the region is a given, above and below, but Indonesia delights the ears as well as the eyes.
From the cheerful “Good morning!” that rings across its wooden decks, rousing sleepyhead divers, to cries of “Briefing, briefing!” that bring them running as surely as Pavlov’s bell, to the chime that announces another gourmet meal — heard more or less constantly — and, finally, the soft, sweet evening sounds of crew members in the open bow, strumming a guitar and harmonizing in their native tongue, Arenui has its own lovely soundtrack.
Nature contributes a few bars too, as the coos and caws of a panoply of birds — settling for the night in small bays that curve around Arenui like a mother’s arms — accompany your open-air sunset massage, a peaceful reverie interrupted only by the crew’s joyful, trilling “Uu luu luu luu!” that greets returning tenders. A new set of calls meets you at dawn, from the loud, cranky demands of enormous birds you will never see but only hear.
But perhaps the most surprising sounds are reserved for underwater, where they are least expected. At Black Rock, off Kawe Island in northern Raja, a bumphead parrotfish the size of a coffee table obligingly shows me his horse-size teeth, and then applies them to the reef with a gusto that yields alarming decibels.
At Dampier Strait sites like Sardine Reef, the sheer volume of life on the move creates a constant distant rumble, “fish thunder.” At the end of one dive, a quartet of black mantas swoops in like a squadron of scouts from the Empire, detouring for a brief inspection of each diver, then passing on with a whoosh clearly heard over the Darth Vader theme that simultaneously cues in everybody’s head. Music of the spheres indeed. — Mary Frances Emmons
M.Y. Darwin Buddy, Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands erupt from the Pacific in the middle of nowhere. But despite being isolated more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, this famed volcanic archipelago sits at the center of an incredible convergence of oceanic currents. It’s a fortunate position — smack dab on the equator, bathed in a steady flow of nutrient-rich waters from all directions — that makes these islands the target of exciting pelagic species, such as giant manta rays, whale sharks, mola mola and scalloped hammerhead sharks.
This vibrant intersection of man and marine life has drawn me here again and again. A dive destination that can deliver encounters with mantas, sea lions, sailfish and bottlenose dolphins, plus four species of sharks (hammerheads, Galapagos, silky and whitetips) — on a single dive — is tough to beat. And the recently launched Darwin Buddy, like its identical sister ship, Wolf Buddy, is equally difficult to match as a conveyance. The 120-foot Euro-styled motor yacht is a state-of-the-art aluminum-hulled vessel designed by and built specifically for divers, from the huge staterooms to the trio of well-equipped camera stations and the expansive dive deck (that can be enclosed and heated on cold days). All of the creature comforts — a large staff-to-guest ratio, warm towels after each dive, and a constant supply of great food — are served up with warm Galapaguenan hospitality. And the ship’s itinerary hits all the region’s hot spots, including Cousins Rock, Punta Vincente Roca, Roca Redonda, and Wolf and Darwin islands.
Midway through an early-January voyage at Landslide, a popular site on Wolf Island, I watch as a squadron of a dozen plump spotted eagle rays swim lazy laps in perfect formation back and forth in front of our group — eight times — before they are replaced by a seemingly endless parade of burly hammerheads, which eventually give way to a quartet in and out as we drift off into the blue. But that isn’t the best part. On the safety stop, a pod of rowdy bottlenose dolphins frolic just on the edge of the 60-foot visibility.
It’s this type of wild underwater action that’s sure to ruin you expectations for many dives to come. Mine are still recovering, and I haven’t complained once. — Eric Michael
Airport: Malé International Airport (MLE)
Transfers: Provided by staff
Entry Documents: Passport and visa
Departure Tax: US$25
Currency: Maldivian rufiyaa
Water Conditions: Water temps in the low to mid-80s. Manta rays and whale sharks from May to December; December to April has 100 to 130 feet of visibility.
Airport: Cairns International Aiport (CNS)
Transfers: Provided by staff
Entry Documents: Passport and visa
Departure Tax: About US$41, usually included in airfare
Currency: Australian dollar
Water Conditions: Water temperatures range from the mid-80s to mid-70s seasonally. Visibility inside the Great Barrier Reef is 40 to 60 feet and can reach more than 200 feet in the Coral Sea.
Airport: Depends on embarkation point
Transfers: Arrange round-trip transfers through Arenui
Entry Documents: Passport and visa
Departure Tax: 150,000 rupiah, payable in local currency
Currency: Indonesian rupiah
Water Conditions: Water temps in the low to mid-80s, with visibility usually 50 to 100 feet. The dry season runs May through September, the wet season November through March.
Airport: Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO) in Quito or José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE) in Guayaquil
Transfers: Arrange flights to San Cristobal through Buddy Dive
Entry Documents: Passport
Departure Tax: US$41 from Quito; US$28 from Guayaquil
Currency: U.S. dollar
Water Conditions: Water temperatures range from 65 to 80 degrees on the surface, and drop to the 60s at depth. Viz averages 75 feet.
Four Seasons Explorer
Guided dives by Instructor or Divemaster; 6-to-1 guest-to-dive guide ratio; diving conducted from 55-foot dhoni sailing vessel; multilingual dive staff; valet gear handling; nitrox; twice-daily housekeeping; sun deck with massage area; dedicated rinse tank for camera equipment; hot and cold showers on two sea-level platforms; wireless access; laundry; two bars
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions/Spoilsport
Two guided dives daily by Instructor or Divemaster; diving conducted from main vessel or two inflatable dive tenders with rear-entry ladders; 6-to-1 guest-to-dive guide ratio; onboard photo and video pro; valet gear handling; nitrox; rebreather; daily cabin service; sun deck; three dedicated camera stations with air guns; camera shelf with recharging facilities; computer in salon; hot chocolate after night dives
Arenui the Boutique Liveaboard
Guided diving with Divemaster or Instructor; five dive guides for up to 16 guests; two fiberglass dinghies and one inflatable rubber boat; cruise directors are experienced underwater and topside photographers; nitrox; valet gear handling; daily cabin service; sky restaurant and lounge; several camera tables with battery-charging stations; two computers with photo/video editing software; 30-minute free welcome massage; hot chocolate after night dives
Buddy Dive MY Wolf Buddy and MY Darwin Buddy
Guided diving by Instructor or Divemaster; 8-to-1 guest-to-dive guide-ratio; two dinghies; onboard photo and video pros can be prearranged; drift diving from pangas; nitrox; twice-daily cabin service; dive deck can be enclosed and heated; sundeck; camera table and rinse tanks; four showers on the dive deck; flat-screen monitor and DVD player in each cabin; whirlpool bath; warm towels after each dive
Four Seasons Explorer: 129-foot three-deck catamaran; 22 guests in one suite and 10 staterooms with en suite
Mike Ball Spoilsport: 100-foot twin-hull, three-deck live-aboard; 28 guests in 14 twin or double cabins
Arenui: 141-foot, two-deck Phinisi wooden sailing vessel; maximum 16 passengers in eight cabins with en suite
Buddy Dive Wolf Buddy and Darwin Buddy: 120-foot, four-deck live-aboard dive yachts; 16 passengers in nine cabins with en suite