The Best Scuba Diving Liveaboards for 2021
A total of 329 individual scuba diving liveaboards were nominated for the 2020 DIVE Travel Awards - but in the end, only 25 of them can make it through to the final vote. Here are the best as voted for by DIVE's readers
Liveaboards are so much more than just dive boats. When you have to spend a week or more in the same place, with the same people, then personal service and attention to detail are of paramount importance. Liveaboard trips often turn into deeply intimate experiences, with divers forming a close personal affinity with the vessel and its crew. Often with a much lower turnover than their shoe-based counterparts, liveaboards have been among the hardest hit of all dive operators - so as we move into the ongoing uncertainty brought by 2021, here's a chance to celebrate the best 25 liveaboards in the world. And remember - just like the best resorts and dive centres category - bottom of the DIVE Travel Awards table isn't 'last place' - it's 25th Best Liveaboard in the whole wide world.
Emperor Elite Egypt / Red Sea
A huge round of congratulations must go to Emperor Divers for not only winning this year's DIVE Travel Awards, but also being the first Red Sea liveaboard to take top place. Several of the Emperor Divers fleet have received nominations in the past but they have not been successful until 2020, when two of its vessels have been voted into the Top 10, with Emperor Serenity placing sixth this year.
The custom-designed Emperor Elite is a 38-metre boat accommodating a maximum of 26 guests in eight standard twin-berth cabins on the lower deck, three premium twin cabins and an upper deck Executive Suite, and – since 2019 – a double upper deck Junior Suite with an amazing panoramic view of the Red Sea. All cabins are ensuite, with independent air conditioning, three towels and a dive poncho per guest. The Emperor Elite is designed to be spacious, has limited free WiFi (signal permitting), three sundecks, a dive deck with platform, a stylish air-conditioned salon and air-conditioned dining room. Two large RIBs ferry divers to and from the dive sites, nitrox is available and sidemount, rebreather & tech diving can be catered for on request.
A range of Red Sea itineraries is available, sailing between Port Ghalib (Marsa Alam) and Hurghada, including iconic dive sites such as Daedalus, Elphinstone, The Brothers and, of course, the legendary SS Thistlegorm.
Wunderpus Komodo, Indonesia
Wunderpus is a new entry to the 2020 DIVE Travel Awards and joins her sister ship Mimic, which was also highly placed this year. Traditionally-built from ironwood and Indonesian teak, the 25m-long, 4.8m-wide vessel first set sail in 2014 and caters to just a small number of people with spacious, comfortable accommodation. There are just two double cabins with queen size beds, and two double-twin cabins with a queen-size bed and a single bunk, and all four cabins are equipped with AC and fan, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 100 per cent biodegradable reef-safe shampoo and soap, and a hairdryer. She has two upper decks with comfortable sunbeds for relaxing – one shaded and one uncovered, for tanning and stargazing at night.
Wunderpus plies her trade throughout Komodo National Park in Indonesia, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet with the possibility to encounter almost every form of marine life, from black sand macro to whale sharks and manta rays, among stunning coral reefs, often with strong currents and spectacular drifts. Combined with the small number of divers on board, the Wunderpus crew make a special effort to schedule dives away from busier reefs, making it a great option for divers who like to get away from the crowds.
Dewi Nusantara Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Dewi Nusantara placed fist in the 2018 DIVE Travel Awards, and ranks highly yet again for the third year in succession, having placed second in 2019 and sharing third spot with Nai'a in 2020. Named after the goddess of the Indonesian archipelago, Dewi Nusantara is a 57m, three-masted schooner launched in 2008, designed to cater to a maximum of 18 guests, accommodated in eight spacious en-suite, air-conditioned staterooms, including the aft 'Master and Commander's’ cabin, which is the size of a large hotel suite. Spacious decks, lounge and dining area afford plenty of room for relaxing in between dives.
Nitrox divers and underwater photographers are well catered for, and Dewi Nusantara has an extraordinary range of itineraries throughout the Coral Triangle, including Raja Ampat, Ambon, Banda Sea, The Forgotten Islands, Halmahera, Ternate, Triton Bay, Cendrawasih Bay, North Sulawesi and beyond.
NAI'A, one of the first liveaboards to operate around the islands of Fiji, is a name that many divers will recognise, having run her first charter in 1993. The luxurious 38m steel ship has been nominated in the Top 25 for the past four years in the DIVE Travel Awards, but this is the first time she has been voted into the Top 10, sharing a well-deserved Top 3 placing this year, thanks in large part to enthusiastic campaigning by the Fijian Tourist Authority. Designed and built in Holland, NAI’A caters to 18 passengers in nine air-conditioned staterooms with ensuite bathrooms, with a sun deck, dive deck and spacious dining area, plus a camera room for photographers. Nitrox is available and rebreather divers can be catered to on request.
Fiji is known as the 'soft coral capital of the World', one of the best places for shark encounters, and is home to five of the world's seven turtle species. NAI'A's itineraries cover the spectacular barrier reefs of the Bligh Water and Koro Sea, and on longer charters head further out into the ocean to explore pristine reefs that are otherwise rarely visited.
Mimic Komodo, Indonesia
Sister ship to the second-placed Wunderpus, Mimic, is a comfortable and well-appointed budget liveaboard, operating in the Komodo National Park and catering to a maximum of just six people. There are no passenger cabins, instead, after the day's diving, the upper deck is converted to a sleeping area with mattresses, pillows and blankets, and a covering for protection from the elements. A communal toilet is available with a freshwater shower. Four meals per day are provided along with water, tea and coffee, plenty of charging points and a kayak for divers to head out and explore the white sand beaches and mangroves of Komodo.
Itineraries are not fixed and the length of the charter can be customised depending on experience and budget.
Bilikiki Solomon Islands
Bilikiki Cruises has been operating in the Solomon Islands for 28 years and has a well-deserved reputation for comfort, safety and service. Offering trips from seven to 14 nights around the Florida and Russell Islands, Marovo Lagoon and Mary Island, itineraries include five dives per day for up to 20 guests accommodated in ten air-conditioned ensuite cabins. All trips start and finish in Honiara, the capital of the Solomons and home of the international airport. Bilikiki operates in a way that benefits people in local communities by paying to dive on the ancestrally owned reefs and buying local produce from islanders.
The Solomon Islands are part of the Coral Triangle with a staggering diversity of marine species, coral and dive sites – yet they remain one of the least dived areas of the world. Consistently great visibility and year-round 28-30°C (80-86°F) water temperature plus a great variety of dive sites with huge drop-offs, coral gardens, caves, sandy critter dives, seamounts, points teeming with fish and numerous WWII wrecks.
Coralia Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Coralia topped our travel awards charts in 2019, together with Papua Explorers, the Raja Ampat resort at which she is based. A traditional Phinisi build, the 48m Coralia caters to 16 guests in eight cabins - four large upper deck master cabins with double beds, wraparound picture windows and private balconies, and two more double and two twin cabins on the lower deck - all with ensuite bathrooms and air-conditioning. The outdoor lounge is set up for al fresco dining, with sun loungers and sofas for relaxing after diving. The spacious dive deck has plenty of room for storage and a large, dedicated camera room, two tenders ferry passengers between dive sites and nitrox is free.
Itineraries vary from seven to 11 nights and explore the Dampier Strait, Wayag, Misool, Batanta and Kawe around Raja Ampat and other locations including Komodo National Park, Alor, the Forgotten Islands, Maumere and the Banda Islands. Up to four dives a day are available, as well as other activities such as bird-watching, hiking and snorkelling.
Emperor Serenity Maldives
Emperor Serenity is a contemporary, spacious liveaboard, 40m-long and easily accommodating 26 guests in 13 well-appointed air-conditioned en-suite cabins: two suites with a king-size double and single bed and one double with a single bed on the upper deck; two suites with a king-size double and single bed on the main deck and a further eight double cabins on the lower deck, five of which also have a single bed. A brand new spa has been installed on the main deck to make sure everybody is relaxed anytime they're not in the water. A separate air-conditioned saloon, dining room and a large covered area on the upper deck allow plenty of room for soaking up the atmosphere; diving is carried out from the traditional Maldivian dhoni tender, and nitrox is free.
The Maldives is a great place to find a lot of big stuff on a regular basis, with small thilas and expansive reefs teeming with smaller fish life and just the occasional small tropical island with a white-sand beach breaking up the view topside. Emperor Elite's itineraries cover the Best of the Maldives and Hanifaru and the North, home to one of the largest seasonal aggregations of manta rays in the world.
Spoilsport Cairns, Australia
Another new entry into the Top 25 this year, placing 8th overall and the first Australian liveaboard to have ever been nominated for the DIVE Travel Awards, Spoilsport is the 30m-long, twin-hulled flagship of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, based in Cairns. Spoilsport has a total of 14 cabins, four premium doubles with ocean views, four standard cabins with twin beds and ocean views, and four club cabins with bunk beds, all of which have ensuite bathrooms. There are a further two budget cabins with bunk beds and shared toilet facilities. The huge dive platform has more than enough space to cater for a full guest complement, as has the lounge and dining area.
Spoilsport ranges across the northern Great Barrier Reef - including the legendary Cod Hole and Ribbon Reefs - heading out into the Coral Sea to Osprey and Bougainville Reefs, depending on the itinerary. Dwarf minke whales put in regular appearances during dives at Ribbon Reef #10, and humpback whales can often be spotted alongside the boat. Sharks are everywhere. As an extra treat, special itineraries feature a low-level flight over the vast expanse of Great Barrier Reef between Cairns and Lizard Island.
Solitude One Philippines
The 52m Solitude One began life in 1979, but was completely rebuilt as a liveaboard in 2013. The steel-hulled vessel has 10 cabins accommodating a maximum of 22 guests: three master staterooms (two double-bed and one twin-share cabin), six deluxe cabins (either double or twin) and one quad cabin with two single beds and a bunk bed. All are air-conditioned with en-suite bathrooms. Five meals per day (light breakfast, big breakfast, lunch, afternoon cooked snacks and dinner) are served in the spacious open-walled dining area and there is plenty of room on the dive deck and spacious sun deck - there is even an onboard jacuzzi.
Solitude One covers both Palau and the Philippines. Palau is iconic for its Second World War wrecks, clear turquoise water, Jellyfish Lake, and for being the world’s first shark sanctuary; the Philippines is regarded as one of the best countries in the world for both travel and diving due to the sheer amount of biodiversity that can be found, from the whale sharks of Tubbataha and thresher sharks of Malapascua to the incredibly rare ghost nudibranchs of Romblon.
Sea Hunter Costa Rica / Cocos Island
2017 Travel Awards Champion Sea Hunter is something of a gold standard for all other dive boats, combining the large-platform, functionality and powerful machinery of a working marine research boat with the comfortable and relaxed interior of a modern yacht. Since 1995, the 35m-long vessel has hosted international celebrities and film-makers – together of course, with thousands of regular divers and photographers – many of whom make the long-range expedition to the remote Cocos Island, during which comfort and stability over the 36-hour journey are important. Ten guest cabins with private baths provide luxurious accommodations for up to 20 passengers, and the spacious vessel is dedicated to the most serious of photographers with individual gear storage and private camera/strobe storage shelves with 110 & 220-volt AC power.
Located in the eastern tropical Pacific 300 miles southwest of Costa Rica, Cocos Island was declared 'the most beautiful island in the world' by Jacques Cousteau. Volcanic in nature, the island is a giant seamount which attracts a huge array of pelagic visitors, including large schools of jacks and tuna, and the huge numbers of schooling hammerheads that are most synonymous with the island. Dolphins, mantas and marbled rays, giant moray eels, marlin and sailfish are commonly encountered, as are silky sharks, silvertips and tiger sharks.
THE VERY BEST OF THE REST
Blue Manta Indonesia
The Blue Manta is a large, purpose-built, steel-hulled dive vessel, measuring 45m and accommodating up to 22 guests in 14 beautifully furnished en-suite cabins, each at least 20sqm in size. An open outdoor alfresco dining area and indoor air-conditioned dining room provide plenty of room for relaxation, and the boat is equipped with camera-friendly facilities, including individual rinse tanks, a wide outdoor work table, indoor dry camera room and blow-dry stations.
The Blue Manta's itineraries take her through Raja Ampat, Sangalaki, Kakaban & Maratua, among others.
The Amira, a traditional wooden Phinisi was constructed by craftsmen from the same village in Bira, South Sulawesi, between 2008-9, before entering service as a luxury liveaboard in 2010. Amira offers nine spacious deluxe double and twin bed cabins plus one single cabin, all of which are air-conditioned with ensuite bathrooms, hot water showers and a western-style toilet, plus a full range of amenities.
The German and Swiss owners planned the liveaboard with emphases on safety, space, premium diving and comfort, offering safaris throughout the Indonesian Archipelago including Raja Ampat, Komodo, Banda Sea and Cendrawasih Bay. Bespoke trips can be booked and arranged if required.
Palau Siren Palau/Philippines
The wooden, 40m Palau Siren was launched in July 2012 to offer year-round diving trips in Palau, and is part of the Worldwide Liveaboards fleet built with the same specifications as her sister yachts, the Philippine Siren and the Indo Siren. She has eight cabins (a mix of doubles and twins) all on the lower deck and can cater for 16 guests. Lots of space for photographers and with three dive guides can run dives with small groups. There is an onboard masseuse.
She runs six, seven and 10-night itineraries covering the German Channel and Ulong Channel. The diving season runs from November to April. High points including the spawning of bumphead parrotfish and exciting night dives in open water.
Uber Scuba's 29m-long liveaboard Amalia offers itineraries from 3 to 6 nights through Komodo National Park, diving some of the most iconic sites in the region, exploring the islands above the water to find the famous Komodo dragons, and stand-up paddleboarding over to pristine white beaches. The three fan-cooled cabins onboard are compact but comfortable, catering to a maximum of seven passengers, with two bunk rooms with shared toilet facilities and a third ensuite double room.
Amalia sails a range of itineraries through Komodo National Park - North, Central, South & Padar
Mermaid II Indonesia
Mermaid II was built and started her duty in the year 2000. She has been constantly improved and after five years of cruising experience, Mermaid Liveaboards proudly states that she is possibly the best in her class – one of the most comfortable and diver-friendly liveaboards in Indonesia. Eight deluxe cabins offer all the comforts a diver needs, with a large panoramic window overlooking the ocean. Each cabin has a private en-suite bathroom with hot water showers and sink, plus camera-charging outlets, storage space, wardrobe and life jackets. A range of itineraries to complement those of the MV Mermaid I are available.
FeBrina Papua New Guinea
FeBrina has been sailing Papua New Guinea's waters on behalf of Walindi Plantation Resort since 1991, a traditional style, boutique liveaboard dive vessel designed to be comfortable, stable and cater to both recreational divers and underwater photographers. A maximum of 10-12 divers are accommodated in cabins which are a combination of small singles, large singles, twin-share cabins and a double cabin in the bow. All cabins are below decks and have ensuite bathrooms and individually controlled air conditioning.
Itineraries vary throughout the year but most include the three most popular dive areas: Kimbe Bay, Fathers Reefs and Witu Islands. Five dives a day featuring lush coral gardens, dramatic and beautiful underwater topography, an abundance of critters, masses of schooling fish, black sand bays full of life, and stunning views topside.
Raja Manta Indonesia
The 36m Raja Manta (formerly the MV White Manta) is a luxury liveaboard accommodating up to 20 guests with eight en-suite cabins located on the upper and main decks and three standard cabins on the lower deck. A large, air-conditioned salon and wide sun deck provide plenty of space for relaxation. Dive amenities include Nitrox, full dive gear and a camera table with rinse tanks. Cruise rates include accommodation, three buffet-style meals and two snacks per day, beverages (coffee, tea and water), cabin service, tank, weight belt and dive guide. Soft drinks, beers and wine are also available for sale.
Raja Manta schedules year-round trips to some of the best locations in the Indonesian archipelago, including the waters surrounding the Banda Sea, Raja Ampat and Sangalaki.
Mermaid I Indonesia
Construction of the Mermaid I began in Bangkok in 1991, completed after two years by an experienced and highly professional team. The immense effort paid off and the luxurious, IMO certified Mermaid I offers all the amenities a diver could dream of. All eight cabins are fully air-conditioned and equipped with TV & DVD player, single, twin or double bed, a large wardrobe, plenty of storage room and an en-suite bathroom with hot water shower, toilet and sink. Fresh bath towels are provided daily, and beach towels, bathrobes, hair-dryers, towels, soap and shampoo are all included for comfort.
Oceania Papua New Guinea
Oceania is the new sister ship to the Walindi Plantations resort's Febrina, a 27m catamaran launched in 2019 after an extensive refit. a maximum of 16 guests can be accommodated in three double and five twin cabins, all of which are above deck and feature ensuite bathroom facilities. Oceania's 9m beam ensures there is plenty of space on the upper decks and in the wide saloon and lots of room for divers to get ready on the large dive deck.
Oceania is scheduled to cover Kimbe Bay, Witu Island and Fathers Reefs with 10 or eight-day itineraries during the peak diving season of September - November and April - May, with slightly shorter routes taking in two of the main diving areas during the rest of the year.
The Arenui is a traditional Phinisi - a classic Indonesian wooden sailing vessel - launched in 2007. The vessel is made almost entirely from 12 different types of wood, with the brass and copper interior fittings handcrafted in Java. The Arenui takes some traditional elements of Javanese houses and recreates them on the boat, creating an Indonesian experience onboard an old-fashioned 'pirate ship' - but still with all the mod-cons. More than 70 per cent of the vessel is made from recycled and reclaimed materials. Two master suites, two deluxe twin cabins and four deluxe cabins accommodate a maximum of 16 divers, with a crew of 22.
The Arenui offers a choice of itineraries throughout the year, based on the best conditions to dive in the various locations around Komodo and Raja Ampat.
The 36m Pelagian caters for just ten guests with a crew of 12, operating from Wakatobi Resort in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. There is a spacious salon and a separate dining area, media centre and dedicated camera workroom, while shaded decks offer additional space for privacy and relaxation. Cabins are designed for comfort with spacious floor plans, luxurious shower rooms and modern décor; the master suite offers all the comforts one would expect of an upscale hotel.
Pelagian cruises to sites in the Tukang Besi archipelago where no other dive operation ventures, with itineraries that are built around guests’ preferences. Each dive is a rewarding experience – from the mandarinfish at Magic Pier to the shrimp breeding grounds of Cheeky Beach at Pasar Wajo to the seamounts at Karang Kaledupa.
A new entry into the DIVE Travel Awards, Moana underwent a complete refit in 2016 and now accommodates a maximum of 10 guests in five functional and cosy cabins - three double-bed cabins and two twin-bed cabins, each with their own individual air conditioning, fans and ensuite bathrooms.
Moana offers a range of itineraries between Flores and Labuan Bajo, taking in the best of Komodo diving en route.
La Galigo Indonesia
La Galigo, one of the 2018 DIVE Travel Awards' Top 25 liveaboards, was designed by its owners to offer diving in some of the world’s most breathtaking areas of the Indonesian archipelago at affordable prices. She is a traditional two-masted Phinisi, built by Southern Sulawesi craftsmen in Bira in 2012. A maximum of 14 people are accommodated in seven cabins - four deluxe cabins on the lower deck, two master cabins on the upper deck, and one premium double cabin known as 'The Suite'. All have ensuite facilities and air conditioning. Four meals per day are served in a large restaurant and bar, and two tenders service the dive deck for ease of transportation to the dive sites.
Itineraries take in both the north and south of Raja Ampat, and include an 8-day 'Ultimate Komodo' voyage, taking in 'all the wonders that Komodo National Park has to offer, in one sitting.'
Damai I Indonesia
Damai I was built in Tanjung Bira, South Sulawesi in 2009, a collaboration between traditional skills and years of experience in liveaboard diving. The 40m vessel has three large deck areas and seven staterooms with a choice of single cabins, twins, doubles or two spacious master suites, all furnished with either queen or king-sized beds, en-suite toilets and showers. Designed with underwater photographers in mind, the boat has large dive stations with individual rinse tanks and a camera room with separate camera stations with 110v and 220v charging for each photographer.
Damai I has a very expansive range of itineraries, covering Raja Ampat, Komodo, the Banda Sea, Forgotten Islands, Alor, Ambon, Lembeh, Cenderawasih Bay, Gorontalo, Halmahera, Kalimantan, Bali and Triton Bay.
Congratulations to all of our winners and Thank You to everybody who nominated, voted and campaigned on social media for this year's DIVE Travel Awards! Let's make sure that we continue to support ALL of the scuba diving destinations, liveaboards, dive centres and resorts that we can as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.
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