Surviving Your First Liveaboard Dive Trip – What To Bring

In this series of articles, I will help guide you through surviving your first liveaboard diving trip. I will cover important topics such as: what to bring with you, traveling solo VS traveling with a group, and how to survive once you are onboard. Keep reading for some great tips!

So, you’re planning your first liveaboard diving trip and you have no idea what to expect. I was you at one point, and ended up packing everything but the kitchen sink. I brought so many unusable items on my first trip, when I booked my second liveaboard I ended up leaving behind some important items (ahem…. sunscreen…). If you are planning on spending your first vacation on a boat, check out my list of must have items.

1. Reef-Safe Sunscreen

I cannot stress enough just how important this item is. This is why it is ranked as my #1 item to bring onboard with you. My first liveaboard was a “bug hunt” (aka… lobster hunting) trip on the MV Vision out of Santa Barbara California and it did not even occur to me to bring sunscreen. Even though it was October and Fall was in full swing it’s still rather sunny. Being an Oregon native, who doesn’t wear an ounce of sunscreen for 3/4ths of the year, it was number 1,000 on my list of important items. Well, I can tell you that I spent a great deal of time in the salon and had a pretty rosey complexion by the time we disembarked. When we booked our second liveaboard to Guadalupe Island Mexico for shark cage diving I made certain that I had a bottle of reef safe sunscreen in my bag. It just so happens that Nautilus Liveaboards partners with Stream 2 Sea and provides each room with a tube of their amazing sunscreen. So, being the “bright” individual I was, I figure that the next company we book with would do the same. Nope… I spent 10 days on the Equator in the Galapagos without protection. I was very thankful that I had brought a hat with me on that trip.

You are going to spend a great deal of time on board prepping your gear and getting ready to dive. Even though many liveaboards have covered dive decks, there are a handful out there that do not. Not only will you spend time getting ready, but you’ll also spend time bobbing on the surface of the ocean as you prepare to descend or after you surface. And, as illustrated above, you never know if this is going to be provided onboard. If the company does have sunscreen available, FANTASTIC, you just saved yourself a bottle… but, if they don’t, you don’t want to be caught red-faced from bobbing on the surface of the ocean after 4-5 dives a day.

Let’s talk about what kind of sunscreen to bring. As divers we should be aware of our impact on the ecology of the environment, we spend time in and work to mitigate any negative impact we may have. This includes being aware of the products and chemicals that we are introducing to these fragile ecosystems. There are MANY brands of sunscreen on the market that claim to be reef friendly. Few of these brands actually put the ingredients in their products through rigorous tests that prove their claims. I personally only use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen products on myself and my family. Not only is this another company own by a fellow mermaid, it is the only company that actually publishes their product test results. All Stream 2 Sea products are 100% reef, human, and animal safe! I won’t do a deep dive into the harmful affects many of the chemicals in standard sunscreens can have on your endocrine system (hello hormones), you can do some digging on your own. But, I can attest to the effectivness of the Stream 2 Sea products, their longevity, and how amazing the company is to work with.

…. Plus…. They have shimmery sunscreen… and the best detangler I have ever used!

2. Folding Gear Bag & Soft Luggage

To say that space is limited on a liveaboard is an understatement. Unless you are splurging for one of the 2 or 3 deluxe suites on a boat your room is likely going to comprise of a queen or two twin beds, a small closet (maybe, not always a guarantee), and a small on-suite bathroom with a standing shower. Some vessels are even more limited on space, where you will have a bunk in a common space and a shared shower room. I call that camping on the water! Regardless of which boat you book chances are your accommodations will be limited and you won’t want to take up a ton of room with a huge dive bag or hard-sided roller.

My favorite gear back to bring on a liveaboard is the Mares Cruise Backpack Roller. This has been a staple in my travel equipment for many years and has seen its fair share of airports, TSA agents, and boats. The amazing thing about this bag is that it FOLDS! It is a full-sized gear bag (18.5W X 12.5D X 32H) that folds into a tight little package that is less than a foot tall. At less than 7lbs, it is also one of the lightest gear bags on the market. After you unload your dive gear, fold this baby back up and store under your bunk or in some dark corner of your stateroom.

“But won’t my gear get smooshed and damaged by the airlines?” Not if you use smart packing techniques. Your BCD will be the bulkiest item you bring with you unless you are packing a dry suit; use these pieces of gear to protect any smaller more fragile items you are not putting in a carry-on. The key to this bag is to use your fins on each side of your BCD, fin tips pointed towards the top and standing up on their sides, so it provides a bit more structure and frames the items on the interior of the bag. This will provide a nice buffer for your items, especially if you have a very sturdy pair of fins like the Apex RK3s. This bag retails for $220 and is in stock at our retail dive center.

3. Back-Up Items

My number 3 is actually multiple items. We hear about people diving with redundancies during technical and cave dives, this is a principle that I believe all recreational divers should incorporate into their diving habits as well. How might this benefit you during a standard recreational dive? The number one reason to have redundant systems: it allows you to keep diving. I always dive with at least 2 computers; one is my primary air-integrated model and one my back-up non-air-integrated. Should my primary computer fail for any reason, I always have my dive profiles from my back-up to refer to. This means that when boat finds a pod of Orcas or a Whale Shark during the next dive, I will be there with them! Otherwise, I’m sitting in the lounge drinking Mai Tais for the next 24 hours. When you spend $3,000+ to take a trip of a lifetime, you don’t want to be forced to sit on the sideline while all your buddies are having a blast. And trust me, the divemaster(s) will not let you dive.

Here is a list of items I always bring a back-up of:

  • Mask
  • Dive Computer
  • Regulator set (if you have one, sometimes the boat will have rentals available on board, sometimes not)
  • Weight Pouch (sucks when you lose one and end up having to dive like a listing airplane)
  • SPG – in the event that your air-integrated computer decides it’s done with it’s vacation.
  • Batteries – Including: computer, Go-Pro, Camera, Strobe, & torch, etc…
  • Thermals if you are dry suit diving
  • Reef safe defogger – Stream 2 Sea baby!
  • Copies of documents: Passport, ID, C-Cards, Flight confirmation, Booking, Health documents… these items may be on your phone or in your bag, but I’ve seen bags get stolen and phones dropped overboard in the rush to take pictures of passing pods of whales.
  • Cash
  • Medications
  • Sunglasses – same thing with the phones, nothing quite like donating your brand-new pair of Maui Jims to Poseidon… I bet he looks cool now.

4. Comfortable & Light Weight Footwear

This will really depend on the type of trip that you are taking. Are you going on a combo land/sea expedition where you will be walking or trekking to remote locations? Or are you spending a day or two in the port city before getting onboard? I’ve done both, and having the correct footwear really makes a difference. Take a look at some of our trip descriptions, these will outline exactly what experiences you will be having and will provide you with a good idea of what type(s) of footwear you should plan on bringing with you. A good rule of thumb for any pair of shoes that you wear or pack, make sure they are light weight and broken in.

Generally, our trips are broken into 3 categories:

  1. Diving Specific: These trips are just diving and are either on a liveaboard or resort. In the case of a liveaboard diving specific trip, you will want to bring a comfortable pair of shoes to wear on deck, ideally a pair of water shoes or flip-flops (slippahs), as well as a pair of comfortable sneakers or shoes to wear during travel and before and after boarding. Many boats have a “no-shoes” policy on board, so having a pair of water socks with you to help alleviate any heat from the deck can be helpful if you have sensitive soles.
  2. Diving & Land Excursions: We call these our combo trips. These are usually destinations that are FAR from our corner of the World and when traveling that far we figure that we should at least see some of the historical sites and experience the culture. Our trip to the Red Sea & Egypt is a great example of this type of trip. We will be touring ancient ruins, museums, and the pyramids; none of which will require any really strenuous work but will require some degree of walking in off-road like conditions such as sand & uneven ground. A sturdy pair of sneakers or touring shoes will help keep your feet comfortable during the land portion of these trips. Ensure that they are breathable and broken in before leaving.
  3. Diving & Land Expeditions: I use the work “Expedition” to differentiate these types of trips from the land Excursions. While 95% of our trips with Excursions will be accessible and appropriate for most of our customers, those Expedition type trips will entail a bit more than walking. Expeditions may include trekking through remote wilderness areas, sleeping in primitive quarters, and “roughing it” for a few days. We won’t be climbing Mt. Everest or crossing Antartica on foot, so no need to expedition weight down parkas and cramp-ons. Because these trips can vary in intensity and location, required footwear will differ from trip to trip. Check with us to see what we are personally bringing on each trip.

Regardless of what kin of trip you choose to take with us, keeping your feet happy and healthy is going to make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your time on vacation. Need to talk to someone about footwear choices? Give us a call!

5. Refillable Water Bottle

Like our discussion about sunscreen, water bottles are another variable in the dive industry. Some boats will provide you with a quality refillable water bottle branded with their logo. I think that is a fantastic service that goes above and beyond what I would normally expect from a boat. While those bottles aren’t going to be hydroflask quality, they do hold water and usually don’t leak, and if you happen to have forgotten your water bottle, are a lifesaver! Some resorts have started providing their patrons with refillable bottles, especially in remote destinations or areas without potable tap water. On a liveaboard, I like to take my refillable bottle game up a notch.

It never fails to amaze me just how bad the water on some liveaboard boats can taste. While it can certainly be considered potable, it’s a far cry from Smartwater. I don’t know about you, but I’m very particular about the way my water tastes, and I have yet to find a dive boat that has water that actually tastes good. It all boils down to the onboard storage tank’s age, type, and filtration system We all know how different metals and plastic composites can affect the taste and hardness of water; when your drinking water has been sitting in an aluminum holding tank for days it just tastes horrible. It’s very hard to explain the exact taste. It’s not bitter, but rather has more of a twang to it. This is fine for showering, brushing your teeth, cooking, and flushing toilets, but I don’t enjoy drinking it.

My recommendation has always been the LifeStraw bottles. This company has dedicated their existence to helping remote communities achieve clean and safe drinking water through the use of their unique filtration system. My go to travel bottle is the LifeStraw Go 650ml/22oz, a self-contained, BPA free, portable filtration & water delivery system. It’s a nice compact sized bottle that has enough capacity to satiate my thirst between fills. It also come standard with a carabiner style clip that prevents it from getting lost if it happens to wiggle its way out of your backpack stash pocket. They key to this bottle is the replaceable filter that is connected to the mouthpiece. To use, you will fill the bottle with unfiltered water. Through the act of drinking, you pull unfiltered water up and through the 2-stage filter, which delivers purified water directly into your mouth. GENIOUS! No external filter to remember to bring, no complex pump systems, no large bladders to fill. You receive as much filtered water as you need at any given moment.

Below you will find some tips and tricks for using this system:
1. When you first use the bottle & filter it will feel like you are trying to suck a chicken egg through a straw. Just keep at it, you are priming the filter. I promise it gets better.
2. They say you can wash in the dishwasher, but don’t forget to take the filter out.
3. Bring a replacement filter with you. These are a little spendy, but if you are nearing the life of your filter (1,000ml or 3 to 5 years regardless of use) you will want to have a back-up just in case you start to see a dramatic decline in the quality of water or performance of the filter.
4. If you chew on your mouthpieces, bring a couple spares.
5. Don’t bring your bottle on the Panga… if your ride is a bit bumpy you don’t want to be adding to the growing plastic problem in our oceans.

6. Emergency Devices

Nobody really wants to talk about the prospect of being lost at sea. I really don’t blame them, it has always been one of the risks associated with diving that has scared me the most. I love diving in the deep blue waters of the ocean where you cannot see the bottom. There is something existential about looking down past the rays of light filtering into the depths and wondering where it all ends. But, there are certain risks associated with diving in the open ocean, even when you are near shore. The ocean is a predictible, but uncontrollable, place. We need to accept this fact when we make the decision to enter it. We also need to do our best to protect ourselves and minimize any harm that may come to us. While SCUBA is filled with many safety practices that we can use both under and over the surface, there is not enough discussion about what to do in the event you are lost at sea.

I know a small handful of people that have had a lost at sea experience. All of those people now own some kind of emergency GPS locator beacon designed specifically for SCUBA divers. These are rated to depths well below recreational levels and with a push of a button, can alert local Coast Guard and rescue organizations, sending them your GPS coordinates and providing “bread-crumbs” to your location. The two most popular and reliable brands are the Nautilus Lifeline and Garmin In-Reach Mini 2. Both are great products from well-known and trusted brands that have YEARS of R&D and practical experience to draw from.

Nautilus Lifeline
The Nautilus Lifeline is my choice of Marine Rescue GPS devices. The newest iteration is compact (2.9 X 3.8″) size makes it so much less cumbersome than the original Lifeline device. It not only has the capability to activate local emergency services, but also has direct to ship capabilities that will allow you to notify the liveaboard you are diving with of your location and that you need assistance. (You must “load” the ship information into your Lifeline at the start of your trip. Check with your Divemaster when you board, they should be able to assist you.) This device has an extremely long battery life, approximately 5 years, when you complete the required after dive maintenance. It is also ready to dive out of the box, no additional case needed! But, of all the features the Nautilus Lifeline has, the fact that you do not need a subscription to use any of the features of the device is my #1 favorite. While you can keep the device in your BCD pocket, I recommend splurging on the $15 silicone sleeve or the $25 neoprene case and securing it to your shoulder strap where it will be easy to reach and activate in an emergency.

We are a Nautilus Lifeline dealer and keep a few in stock at all times. Retail price runs between $199 & $220 depending on sales.

Garmin inReach Mini 2
The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a powerful Marine GPS and communication devise. It utilizes Garmin’s diverse array of global positioning system satellites to provide the user with emergency GPS services, weather conditions, real-time GPS coordinates, and text messaging at remote locations. Yes, you can text your mother when you are diving Darwin & Wolf Islands… how do I know… because I did it. This is a premium device that comes at a premium price point. If you are a globe trekker that needs to stay in contact with the rest of the world, then this just may be the solution for you. The devise itself is about the same size as the Nautilus Lifeline, but you will need a specifically designed case to take the inReach Mini 2 diving which increases the overall size by around a half an inch in each direction. The Garmin inReach Mini 2 has the same emergency services activation and direct to ship communication technology as the Lifeline. The only downside to this device is the yearly or monthly fee you will need to subscribe to in order to use any of the features. You are getting a wide array of features that the Lifeline is not able to provide, as well as the ability to connect directly to Garmin’s Descent MK line of dive computers and provide additional user interfaces. So, if you need something with a bit more functionality and communitcation capabilities the Garmin inReach Mini 2 is the Emergency GPS locator for you.

We are a Garmin dealer and keep at least one inReach Mini in stock. This device retails for $399.99 & the dive case retails for $79.99.

7. Log Book

Logging your dives is just as important as doing your pre-dive safety check. It serves several purposes, from detailing the specifics of a dive, to recording the amount of weight you used, to providing a dive operator with proof of your abilities and the number of dives you have completed. Some trips will require you to provide proof that you have completed a minimum number of dives and have experience in certain conditions. The only way to satisfy this requirement is to provide a copy of your dive log. It does not have to be a fancy handwritten paper dive log with 20 individual booklets outlining your entire dive career. An increasing number of divers are moving to electronic dive logs to record their diving activities. There are hundreds of electronic dive logs on the market, some have been developed by third party app developers and are fee to use. Others require a paid subscription. Nearly every single dive computer manufacturer on the market has their own electronic dive log, and many of these computers have Bluetooth connectivity that automatically downloads your dive data to your phone, tablet, or laptop. This is how I log my dives these days. I own a Garmin Decent MK2i dive computer, and it automatically downloads all of my dive data to my cell phone. After a day of diving, I will edit any specifics such as the dive location, how much weight I was wearing, what gear I was using, and any notable creatures or events during those dives. When I need to show proof of the number of dives I have, I just show the Divemaster my app, or provide them with a printed version of my dive log.

8. Personal Dive Gear

This one may seem fairly obvious, but don’t’ forget your gear. YOUR GEAR. While most liveaboards have the option to rent a full set of gear you will be far more comfortable and confident in a set of gear that you own and are used to diving in. Renting gear while on a dive trip is like playing the roulette table in Vegas, you never know if you are going to land on black. I’ve heard horror stories from customers coming into our shop talking about the issues they had with rented gear while on vacations, from free-flowing regulators to BCDs that wouldn’t inflate. Now, it may be my personal preference, but I want to be able to rely on my gear while abroad. The only way that you can personally guarantee that the gear you are using has been serviced and is in proper working condition, is by investing in a set of personal gear.

Your gear does not have to be the best and most expensive gear on the market. Frankly, the most expensive gear is not necessarily the best anyways. It does need to fit you and per appropriate for the environment you will be diving in. This means that you will not be using that Aqualung Titan regulator in Antartica, nor will you need to bring a drysuit to the Maldives. When providing a customer with a gear consultation, I cannot stress enough that they need to consider purchasing gear for the most complex diving that they plan on doing. Here in Florida we often dive in warmer waters, which means that we don’t often need to have an environmentally sealed regulator. But, as a diver who lives in Florida and travels all over the planet, I want to have a regulator that does not limit the destination I can dive in. So, if I want to bring my personal regulator to dive Iceland, I’m going to buy that Aqualung Leg3nd or Mares Epic!

A Buoyancy Compensation Device is not quiet as complex compared to a regulator, and most are going to be suitable for dive travel. The most common consideration that needs to be accounted for will be the weight of this piece of equipment. Most manufacturers have designed BCDs specifically for travel. These are lightweight and slimmed down versions of their daily diving cousins. My personal favorites are the Aqualung Rogue and the Mares Magellan. I have been diving with the Rogue for several years and enjoy the fit and finish of this BCD. It has plenty of lift to dive with my wetsuit or my drysuit, excellent weight pocket locations, and the ability to quickly swap out components in case I need a larger waistband or broke a shoulder strap. You can also customize with a colored bladder cover that acts as protection and adds some personal style.

Let’s talk about dive computers for a moment. One of the most common questions I receive from my Open Water students is: What should the first piece of gear I purchase be? These are individuals that have already made the initial investment of a basic snorkel set (mask/fins/snorkel/etc) and are looking to grow their dive equipment collection. 100% of the time my answer is going to be a dive computer, followed by a regulator. I don’t know of any boat in the state of Florida that will allow you to dive tables, you must have a dive computer. Now, it doesn’t have the be the most amazing dive computer in the world, it just has to read your depth, dive time, NDL, & record your dives. A simple wrist mount “puck” style computer is often a diver’s first model and can act as a back-up if they make the decision to upgrade to an air-integrated model. The fact of the matter is, having you own dive computer will make the world of difference when you are doing repetitive dives over the course of a 7 day long liveaboard. If you are looking for a entry level dive computer that has one of the highest user ratings and most capabilities, check out the Shearwater Peregrine. This computer can do almost anything and is perfectly suited for the daily diver and world traveler.

Divers are often aware of that exposure protection they need in order to dive the waters of their local sites, but we often forget to ask about the conditions at the destinations we are traveling to. Take the Galapagos for example, above the water it can get very warm, it is on the equator. Below the surface on the other hand can be an entirely different situation. Some sites in the Galapagos Islands are considered cold water diving and will require a heavy 7mm or drysuit to be safe and comfortable, while others can be enjoyed in a much thinner 3mm suit. Using a drysuit requires special training and equipment in addition to your regular scuba kit. The Red Sea on the other hand has many sites that can be completed in boardshorts and a rash guard. Ask your booking agent or the dive shop you are traveling with about the local conditions on your trips and my recommendations they have regarding exposure protection. The last thing you want to be is too cold or too hot during a dive.

9. A Good Book & Entertainment

A great deal of your time on a liveaboard will be spent diving, eating, & sleeping. The tempo is usually something along the lines of: wake-up, have a snack, dive, have breakfast, nap, dive, have lunch, nap, dive, have a snack, dive, have dinner, and then go to bed. It is not uncommon to complete 4-5 dives a day on a liveaboard trip. When you are on the boat for 7-10 days, that can be exhausting! By the time day 4 rolls around, you may want to take a break and sit out in the sun or lay in your cabin. There really is no better time to catch up on that book you’ve been wanting to read for the last couple of years. I actually read The Stand while we were on one trip, but I had surgery a few months prior and really ended up sacked out after the 3rd dive of the day.

I don’t actually bring books with me. I love my Amazon Kindle Fire HD 10 when I am traveling. It is compact, lightweight, and can store many more books than you could possibly read while on a dive vacation. I can also download movies or an audiobook or two for the long flights. It really is a versatile little piece of technology. I highly recommend picking one up before your next trip. Amazon often has special sale dates throughout the year, so if you have some time before you head out, watch your email and wait for those Prime Day deals to come through.

10. Your Dive Buddy

Don’t forget the most important piece of your dive travel kit, your dive buddy. While solo travel can be an exciting adventure where you get to meet new people and explore the World at your own pace, having a buddy to share the experience will provide you with years of stories and insider jokes. Having a buddy will also help spread the cost of the trip out over two people. Many liveaboards charge what is known as a “single supplement” for anyone that is traveling solo and not wanting to room with another individual. This fee can be upwards of 80% the retail price of the double occupancy rate, which means, as a single traveler you are paying nearly double the retail price! I don’t know about you, but if I was a single traveler, I wouldn’t want to risk having to pay that fee if no other single travelers book the boat.

So, If you have a friend that has been hemming and hawing over becoming certified, one of our Open Water friendly trips may be a great opportunity to assist them along the way. I always feel like it is better to know the skills and abilities of your dive buddy than to risk being paired up with an air hog or reckless diver. We can complete their entire Open Water course in one weekend! Give the shop a call and get them into the next class. Start making those memories today!

Final Thoughts

Booking your first liveaboard trip can feel daunting and slightly frightening. We hope that our first post, what to bring, has provided you with the information you need to start your packing list. Our owners, James and Ashley, have traveled the World and been on many liveaboard trips with different boat operators. They are here to make sure your vacation is as easy as possible and maybe most importantly, FUN! As Ashley always says, “if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”

The professional staff and instructors at Space Coast Dive Center will always be here to assist you with any SCUBA and SCUBA travel related questions. Give us a call at 321-723-8888 if you want to discuss and of our amazing travel opportunities and full line of travel gear.

Happy Diving!