How to get to the world's most remote dive sites

If you want to dive the world’s most remote sites, and get the maximum diving with minimum effort, you need to ditch the resort for a liveaboard. We look at the best boats uncovering what to expect onboard, and where to find offbeat itineraries.

By Sam Lewis
Published 30 Aug 2019, 10:18 BST
Diving in Costa Rica
Diving in Costa Rica
Photograph by Getty Images

The 58-metre cruiser SS Thorfinn is gently bobbing in the mid-Pacific in Chuuk Lagoon, billed as the biggest diveable ship graveyard on the planet. On board, an audience of 20 listens avidly to a history lecture on Operation Hailstone, during the Second World War; part of a series of attacks that created the eerie underwater museum below them. Tomorrow, they’ll dive from custom-designed 32ft tenders to explore some of the 250 aircraft and 40-odd ships, encrusted with colourful coral and full to the brim with cargo ranging from rusting motorcycles and munitions to unbroken sake cups and human remains.

But tonight, with a 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio, there’s no need to do anything other than sip cocktails on the aft deck and tuck into a three-course meal before retiring to the comfort of air-conditioned cabins.

Thousands of miles away in Thailand, a group of divers tucks into rice and curry before piling into a cosy cabin with four bunk beds, ready to explore some of the region’s most remote dive sites at first light. Their week’s diving costs less than half the price of a week on the SS Thorfinn and while some creature comforts may be lacking, underwater there’s no first- or second-class tickets: everyone has a front row seat.  

“We often get the same clients booking a high-end liveaboard somewhere exotic and then a staple Red Sea trip in the same year,” says Phil North, product manager at Dive Worldwide, who emphasises that the level of budget liveaboards has improved dramatically, with many even offering free nitrox and wi-fi.

“Just 15 years ago in the Red Sea, clients would be told how many showers they could have in a week, whereas now liveaboards have desalination systems on board and an endless supply of fresh water. The fresh fruit and veg would usually be well past its sell-by date come the last two days of the trip. Now there’s so much space and the quality of meals — lobster, steak and rack of lamb — and the amount of food is consistently high.”

At the luxury end, standards have also risen with some liveaboards offering king-size beds, spa therapists, wine cellars, private washer/driers and even helicopter pads, while the choice of vessel is also bigger than ever. Take your pick from a small gulet, modern cruiser, schooner, wooden phinisi (an Indonesian two- or three-masted sailing ship) or a spacious catamaran.

While onboard experiences and itineraries differ, all liveaboards have several things in common: they sail far from land and give guests the opportunity to enjoy multiple dives every day, waking up each morning close to a different remote pristine dive site.

“There’s nothing quite like floating among jungle-clad islands and white sand beaches with not another soul in sight and world-class scenes below the surface,” says Louisa Fisher who, as head of Original Diving, has experienced multiple liveaboards in Egypt, the Maldives and Indonesia. “Liveaboards are getting more and more popular in line with the travel trend that people really want to get away from it all, off-the-beaten track with no other boats or buildings in sight. Plus, there’s the bonus of getting the maximum amount of diving — three to five dives a day — with minimum effort.”

Getting serious

For serious divers, Sandro Lonardi, head of marketing at PADI, says liveaboards are the only way to explore some of the world’s best dive sites: “Resort diving limits you to a specific location with dive sites typically within an hour’s boat ride from the dive centre. Liveaboards, however, allow you to access areas you simply couldn’t reach on a day trip from the coast.”

Lonardi points to remote Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica on a map. “You won’t find any hotels there,” he says, adding that the 342-mile journey from the coast would take around 36 hours by boat. Described as the most beautiful island in the world by legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, the seas around Cocos Island are home to huge schools of scalloped hammerheads, manta rays and even whales, making this a dive site on every keen diver’s radar.

Once you’ve done Cocos, you’ll probably be saving up for the ultimate dive safari — the Galápagos, for which liveaboards are ideal. Darwin and Wolfe, two uninhabited outlying islands in the archipelago, are home to hammerheads, rays, Galápagos sharks, whale sharks and mola molas, yet take around 12 hours to reach from the coast of Ecuador.

On a diver’s bucket list, you’re sure to come across the Socorro Islands. Around 250 miles southwest of the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, they’re famed for their unique ecosystem and the chance for close encounters with mantas and humpback whales.

Then there’s the remote Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines. Located bang in the middle of the Sulu Sea, it’s only accessible by boat during a couple of months of the year, and home to pristine dive sites with more than 300 coral species and 600 species of fish including thresher sharks, whale sharks, hawksbill and green turtles. However, while liveaboards make many of these destinations accessible, Lonardi warns that diving in such remote places can be challenging.

“Most of these are quite hardcore and are not for novice divers due to rough seas and strong currents,” he says.

Phillip Connor, MD of Sportif Dive, agrees. “You need to have experience on 75% to 85% of liveaboards as you’re typically diving into deep water, which can throw novice divers. Beginners should stick to resort diving where you can begin and end a dive from the beach, with the ability to kneel down and stand up.”

While many novice divers are tempted to gain experience on a Red Sea liveaboard, for example, due to its proximity and low prices (one week, including full board and diving, can cost around £1,000), Connor warns it’s not as flat and calm as people think.

“The wind can cause issues in the Red Sea and it’s not unusual for operators to demand a 50-dive minimum — meaning divers must have at least 50 dives under their belt. When you get to this level, you tend to understand drift and current.”

For beginner divers, Connor recommends the Maldives or the Caribbean (the Caymans or Bahamas offer excellent diving), due to easier dive conditions.

“It’s possible to get a week in the Maldives for £1,499 per person, including full board, all diving and flights. A trip like this will likely take in mantas and other big fish.”

It’s also easy to become more proficient with operators such as Emperor Divers offering advanced dive courses on a boat, with up to 20 dives in one week.

“Time on a liveaboard doesn’t have to be nothing but diving,” Lonardi adds. “These days, many vessels are kitted out with kayaks or SUPS. Some are more relaxed than others with the Scubaspa brand for example having an onboard team of full-time therapists offering a hybrid or a mixed package so you can trade dives for spa treatments.”  

More than diving

While most liveaboards offer four to seven-night itineraries, some in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef offer two- or three-night trips for a taster experience. Longer trips (13-14 nights) often cater for those with a special interest with experts in photography or marine biology onboard and opportunities for guests to help survey and tag wildlife.  

“Last summer I joined a voluntourism trip aboard the 134ft expedition vessel M/Y Sharkwater on a manta and turtle ID tagging research trip off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica — one of the most fun liveaboards adventures I’ve done,” says hobby diver Jeanette Grant, who’s been on nine liveaboards since 2016.

For Grant, it’s not just what’s underneath the surface that makes the trip: “I’ve made some great friends on liveaboards. Living in such close proximity means you form stronger bonds with people than you would at a resort. Conversely, living in such close proximity can also make for a less than desirable dynamic if there’s any conflict. It’s all part of the experience though. One of my favourite aspects is spending time getting to know the crew. They’re akin to the locals I enjoy meeting on land-based trips and so finding out about their culture, knowledge of the destinations and fun personalities is always a mind-opening, positive experience.”

Like many divers, Grant has travelled alone on many of her trips.

“Around 90% of our clients are single,” says Connor, who points out there’s no single supplement for those willing to share a cabin. Singles are typically matched by age and gender and have one thing in common — a passion for diving and the underwater world.  

“The range of clients is huge,” says Connor. “Some can afford to dive several times a year, others have saved up all year for the one trip. We get every profession under the sun: teachers, doctors, plumbers, truck drivers. It’s a diverse sport. And while we don’t get many 18-25s, unless it’s a dive club, we do get those in their 80s.”

While single travellers can snap up some great last-minute deals as operators vie to fill cabins, it’s essential to book in advance if you want to secure a place on a liveaboard sailing to a bucket-list destination such as Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines or the wrecks of Truk Lagoon, with cabins often booked up two years in advance to the Galápagos despite the eye watering cost of £5,000-£7,000 per week.

And, for those who have ticked off these top sites, new areas are emerging. For example, divers who have explored Indonesia’s Komodo and Raja Ampat needn’t stop there — itineraries in the Banda Sea, the Forgotten Islands and Alor are gaining in popularity, according to Original Diving, while Socorro, Palau and the Azores have recently become more accessible thanks to more good-quality liveaboard operators. Other on-trend itineraries include destinations — like Sudan and Papua New Guinea — where unrest and FCO advice makes a typical resort-based holiday impossible.

Meanwhile, TV programmes such as Blue Planet are increasing the demand for ocean safari ‘experiences’, similar to the wildebeest migration through East Africa, although timing is, of course, key.

Take the big spawning seasons in Palau, Micronesia, for example. This natural event occurs during a full and new moon when huge numbers of red snapper rise up from the deep to gather and begin mating manoeuvres, which in turn attract large predators including bull sharks and hammerheads. During the new moon, hundreds of humphead parrotfish gather and bump heads to gain superiority over females, changing colour as the fish prepare to spawn, again attracting predators — and divers who are keen to get up close to the action.

But it’s not all about tropical waters. MS Sula tours Svalbard from the middle of October to the middle of February to see the largest gathering of orcas in the world, congregating due to the vast amounts of herring in the waters. The downside? Dry suit diving will be essential, but look on the bright side — there will be plenty of ice breakers to get to know fellow passengers. 

Top tips from Dive Worldwide

Plan ahead: Some liveaboards request a minimum number of dives and experience, so be sure to check well in advance before booking. Ensure your insurance also covers you for the type of diving you’re planning to do.

Be punctual: It’s always a good idea to arrive one day before the liveaboard departs in case of delayed flights or lost luggage. Ensure you’re present for the safety briefing, too, as this is crucial.

Kit up: Make sure your equipment has been serviced before going on holiday. Take a dry bag for your valuables on the dive deck. Wi-fi may be chargeable on boats to remote locations, with charging points usually available on main deck.

Stay visible: Most liveaboards provide divers with safety devices, but check prior to travel. It’s important to bring these devices on dives in the event you’re not diving with the group, get separated from the group or end up in a strong drift. A good bet are surface marker buoys, which float above you; attachments for a low pressure inflator that make a loud noise; or even a personal locator beacon.

Take a breath: Nitrox is free on some liveaboards but chargeable on others. Some boats can provide gas for rebreathers and many liveaboards can be chartered for more advanced, technical diving (ask ahead).

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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