Liveaboard or Resort Diving?

By Randy Harwood

Liveaboard Diving vs. Resort Diving

What’s better for underwater photography, land-based or live-aboard diving?

By Randy Harwood


For most of us, booking a dive vacation is an exciting but challenging affair. When to go? Where to go? How long to stay? And importantly for divers, should it be a land-based trip or a liveaboard diving adventure? I know a number of divers and underwater photographers who have never considered spending a week or more on a boat, preferring to stay at a resort, condo, or eco-lodge where diving can be arranged at the resort or nearby. I also know divers who prefer to only dive off live-aboards.



What’s the difference between a resort and liveaboard? Who’s right?

As is usually the case, it depends.

Many things come into play when booking a dive trip. First and foremost, time and money are big issues. If you have only a few days to dive and maybe a limited budget, a land-based trip will likely be the most affordable. You can choose a destination where the currency exchange is in your favor and you can find an inexpensive place to stay, providing there is a dive operation nearby to provide tanks, guides, boats, etc. You can eat on the cheap and limit the number and days you dive to meet your budget.

Most live-aboards have scheduled 1 week, 10 day or 2 week trips. As such, your time commitment is greater and has less flexibility. Since live-aboards must provide not only a room and diving, but have all the amenities needed to feed and provide for its’ guests, the daily cost for the trip can be higher than inexpensive land-based options. Additionally, the significant cost of fuel increases the daily costs for dive boat operators; motoring daily for many days at a time has become very expensive these days.



Divers on a Zodiac

Divers on a Zodiac -which is a small boat a liveaboard uses


I have booked trips to great tropical destinations for as little as $100/day, including room, board and diving, (land-based) and as much as $400+/day on a live-aboard. Obviously, there are extremely expensive dive resorts and fairly inexpensive live-aboards.


Dive Trip Locations

The location of the dive trip you choose will often help you to pick the land or the sea. There are many dive destinations that lend themselves well to shore-based diving; Bonaire, Mabul, St. Vincent’s, and Yap come to mind. Likewise there are places where the best or only option is a live-aboard boat. Cocos Island, the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, etc., are examples. If you have your heart set on seeing hammerheads and thousands of pelagic fish, you’ll need to go to a remote island like Cocos, which is only visited by a boat, making your decision moot.

2019 Update: Tubbataha in the Philiippines has been growing in popularity as a liveaboard destination, and it's one of the easier Coral Triangle destination to get to. Find a liveaboard in Tubbataha. Read more about why Tubbataha is a great diving destination in June.

On the other hand, if you require only clear, warm water, pretty reefs and fish, there are dozens of fantastic resorts and dive operations around the world to provide excellent dive services from land. Many of these can also boast great encounters with sharks and other pelagics.


Pros and Cons of resorts and liveaboards

Here are some of the pros and cons I have encountered both on the land and at sea.

For many people, the comfort provided by a normal sized room, bathroom and bed found in most resorts and condos is a must. Your vacation may be about diving, but it is also about being able to relax and live comfortably. Not everyone is comfortable at sea. Sea sickness can quickly ruin an otherwise great trip and there are those who prefer to not chance a bumpy sea voyage. Most boats are noisier, more cramped and offer less freedom of movement than a resort.


A view from a resort

View from Sipidan resort


If your destination has interesting things to see, a land-based trip will allow you to go exploring, either in town or the jungle or the beach. For most of the time, if you’re on a boat, there are fewer options for exploring ashore. It’s more about diving.


Privacy is also easier to find in your hotel room, or just down the beach, than it is in a boat. On a boat, you may have a stateroom to yourself, but all other time is spent in the company of the other guests and crew. Sometimes the vibe on the boat is fantastic and everyone gets along. Sometimes it seems like a “ship of fools” and there is nowhere to hide.

If your spouse or travel partner is not a diver, it usually will make sense to stay on land and allow him or her to hang out at the pool, go shopping or exploring or take advantage of day trips, while you are out diving.


Board your boat from an elegant pier at your dive resort

Board your boat from an elegant pier at your dive resort


Downsides of land-based diving

There are downsides to land-based diving. By its nature, the diving is limited by the range of the day boats or the availability of shore dives near the resort. Most day trips will be limited to 2 dives and will return after the second dive for lunch. Resorts can house many more people than a boat and if the area is visited by locals and other tourists, the number of divers in the area can be very large. As a result, the dive sites visited will often be heavily dived and there may be a large number of people in the water at the same time. The negative effects of heavily-visited reefs can be evident.

Shore-based diving generally delivers 2 or 3 dives a day. Because there is a lot of time ‘wasted’ getting to and from the day boats or shore entry areas, diving more than 3 times a day is often much more difficult.

Live-aboard diving often requires more patience when it comes to living conditions. Staterooms can be cramped, stuffy affairs, heads are not always provided for each stateroom and are generally small and subject to plumbing issues. Because you are always at sea, you are subject to the whims of the weather and ocean swells and the sounds and smells of a boat at sea.

However, for serious divers and underwater photographers, whose primary concerns are the quality and quantity of diving to be had, live-aboards offer the best chances for diving more pristine, unusual sites and often make diving 4, 5 or 6 times a day easy.

I have found that generally speaking, most live-aboard divers have logged more dives and are more experienced world travelers, than their land-based counterparts. As such, most are “like-minded,” friendly, enthusiastic divers and many people I now count as my good friends and dive buddies, I first met on a dive boat.


Scuba Club Cozumel Resort

Scuba Club Cozumel Resort in Cozumel, Mexico


As with most generalizations, everything I’ve said about shore-based diving and dive boats has exceptions. There are a great many land-based dive resorts that offer “dive-boat quality” experiences as well as the more comfortable amenities found on land. The Manta Ray Bay Resort in Yap, Turneffe Island Resort in Belize, Sorido Bay in Raja Ampat, and Wakatobi in Indonesia come to mind. Likewise, there are live-boards that will easily rival any 5 star resort for comfort, roominess and service. In fact, it seems that the trend for the dive boat trade is to improve the experiences while aboard. Great boats I have enjoyed were the ‘Manthiri’ in the Maldives, The ‘Paradise Sport’ (no longer) in Papua New Guinea, and the Bilikiki in the Solomon Islands, among many others.

How you choose your next dive trip depends on your skill level, budget, time and inclinations. Whatever you decide, make a choice and go diving!


About the Author

This is the second of a series of monthly columns written by Underwater Photography Guide field editor Randy Harwood. Visit Randy's website or email him.


Further Reading

Big lessons learned, almost the hard way

Best Dive Destinations for Underwater Photography

Top 6 luxury dive resorts in Southeast Asia




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