When it comes to exploring striking coral reefs & walls teeming with colorful marine life in exotic locales, live-aboards are the ideal way to go The call arrives like a brisk splash of water in the face. ''Dolphins! Dolphins riding the front bow!''No matter how many times I witness this scene, the outcome is always the same. Within seconds everyone bolts out the door -- leaving hot meals, books, movies, whatever -- to peer off the ship's foredeck. Like long-ago sailors, we view the dolphins playfully racing in on an intercept course as a good omen at the outset of a voyage. Watching several sleek, gray bodies zigzag sharply in their high-speed antics for the best spot off the Solmar V as it plows its way to the next island, my excitement mounts as I envision the upcoming dives.The live-aboard dive ship is taking us to the Socorro Islands, which sit 220 miles south of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Once in the water, I am greeted by old acquaintances from previous trips here: several giant manta rays with wingspans exceeding 16 feet.Equipped with softball-size eyes and broad cephalic fins that act as directional intake scoops for a cavernous gaping mouth, mantas are most certainly alien in appearance. It is a mesmerizing sight to observe these delta-winged nekton giants as they glide by with incomparable, fluid grace. Having one approach with fully spread wings and then park 3 feet above your head for a belly rub is mind blowing. If not, you must be certifiably dead. Memorable experiences such as this are one of the main attractions of live-aboard diving.''The chance of encountering large marine animals during a dive from a live-aboard is 300 to 500 percent greater than from a land-based operation,'' says Wayne Hasson, president of the Aggressor fleet of live-aboard boats.During a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands on the Galapagos Aggressor I, I went from the amazement of watching a marine iguana feed on the rocks underwater to a face-to-snout encounter with large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. As if that wasn't enough, every dive also featured gargantuan whale sharks that measured at least 35 feet in length.For an ardent diver, the reality of encountering marine giants such as these does more than engrave itself into the memory files under extraordinary diving experiences. It fans the very flame that warms the soul.When it comes to exploring striking coral reefs, walls and vintage wrecks teeming with colorful marine life in exotic locales, live-aboards are the ideal way to go.''Max Times''These days, the choice of live-aboards fanned out across the globe is staggering. Dozens of these boats ferry divers across the Red Sea and Caribbean, as well as Australia's Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef. Even the number of vessels plying the waters from Micronesia across the Indo-Pacific to the more distant Maldives is quite impressive. In out of the way destinations such as Thailand, there's the Sai Mai, M/Y Pelagian and Andaman Seafarer, to name only a few.''When it comes to finding the strange to highly bizarre small, colorful critters like mimic octopus and chambered nautilus, the western and Indo-Pacific are hard regions to beat,'' says renowned fish identification expert Paul Humann, who also was a pioneer in the field of live-aboard diving. ''The stuff there will really knock your eyeballs out!''Aside from the fact that live-aboard boats go to places that the typical diver would never be able to otherwise visit, they also provide what one leading expert describes as ''max time.''According to Peter Hughes, whose company offers trips on seven live-aboard vessels, the goal of achieving maximum time both in the water and on the water is what started the concept of the live-aboard.''Of course, during its infancy, divers basically had to give up a lot of creature comforts for the convenience of obtaining that maximum dive time,'' Hughes says.Humble BeginningsLong before his first reef fish identification guide was published, Paul Humann owned one of the first successful live-aboard boats. ''When I started running the Cayman Diver in 1972, it was the only dedicated live-aboard in the Caribbean. At the time, there was only Skeet LaChance's Highlander in the Bahamas and Reef Explorer in Australia,'' he recalls.Humann says his 86-foot live-aboard ''was pretty Spartan by today's standards, big time! We had one bunkroom for six and three two-person cabins, which were pretty small, and we had two heads and one shower for the entire boat. ''Water was limited, and we couldn't run the A/C and the compressor at the same time so things got hot during the day.'' What made it successful was his philosophy: ''Give them all the diving they want at nothing but the best sites, with plenty of good food and good service. Everything else becomes incidental.''By the time Humann sold his boat in 1980, the number of Caribbean live-aboards had grown by two, and it didn't appear as if things were going to change. That is until 1984, when the Cayman Aggressor was introduced.''It changed everything,'' Hughes says. The vessel was a 90-foot oil platform supply boat that was converted into a modern dive yacht with air-conditioned staterooms, a salon and a larger dive deck.''Granted, at the time it was the best thing out there. To describe it the boat now would be pretty crude by today's standards. We didn't have carpeting on the floors or individual private showers and heads in the cabins,'' says Aggressor's Hasson.''But what made it work -- in addition to being a faster, more spacious boat -- was a really large, dedicated dive deck with a large camera table and on-board E-6 processing, which was a first.''The next advance in live-aboard diving came in 1986 with Hughes' Sea Dancer, which featured staterooms with their own shower and head. The upgrades kept coming with his company's second live-aboard. Every cabin included private facilities, larger picture windows in place of small portholes and individual air-conditioning controls in the rooms.New WrinklesToday most live-aboard boats average between 80 and 120 feet in length, though some sport larger proportions of 130 to even 150 feet. Configurations vary from traditional monohull types to newer twin-hull arrangements.Quite a few of the more modern vessels fall into the ''dive-yacht'' category, but there are still several older ships with the quad-cabin or dormitory-style sleeping quarters and shower/head facilities located in the hallway.Regardless of whether the boat is new or old, 12 to 20 divers is customary (some may take as many as 22). The two main social centers are the salon and the dive deck.The level of sophistication in some boats is remarkable. Amenities can range from full carpeting and large entertainment centers (TV, VCR with a broad movie library and stereo system) in the main salon to having a personal TV/VCR in cabins. My cabin on the Melanesian Discoverer in Papua New Guinea came with a satellite phone.One of the newest wrinkles on live-aboard boats is the capability to both send and receive e-mail messages. Sending a message costs all of a buck-- so much for escaping the outside world.''All of our boats have them now, including both Galapagos Aggressors,'' Hasson says. Some of his live-aboard boats also are equipped with digital slide scanners as well as digital video cameras.''The basis for this move to create a more 'luxury-yacht' atmosphere on live-aboards was largely due to our market maturing and becoming more refined,'' Hughes says. ''Unlike the early days, now a large number of diver's wives are divers themselves. The idea is to make them feel this is their boat.''Getting Your Money's WorthAccording to market surveys, the largest negative perception about live-aboard boats is that they are more expensive than traditional diving vacations.Not including airfare, rates based on double occupancy for a live-aboard average between $1,500 and $2,800 for most seven- to nine-night charters. These prices customarily include all meals and snacks, soft drinks, beer, wine (even some of the harder stuff), airport ground transfers and six days of diving, with four to five dives per day. These costs break down to $250 to $466 per diving day. If you choose a shore-based option during the high season in a popular destination, accommodations will run $150 to $350 per night (not counting room incidentals and tax). Add on $50 to $100 per day for meals and at least another $60 to $100 for diving. Even without counting extras like cab fares and bar tabs, the cost comes out to $235 to $508 a day. Thinking of doing a third afternoon or night dive? Add another $45 to $60.Bottom LineIf diving is the primary goal of your trip, then a traditional, land-based destination may wind up costing considerably more than a live-aboard vacation.
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