Each year hundreds of thousands of certified divers travel to exotic tropical destinations for vacation. If you’re not yet one of them, there’s a good chance you soon will be. Dive travel is an extremely rewarding experience, but it requires careful preparation.
There are a number of ways to arrange your dive vacation. The easiest is to sign up for an escorted group trip sponsored by your local dive center or club. This lets you associate with other divers and learn about dive travel while the trip leader handles all the arrangements. You simply show up at the airport with your dive gear, C-card, and luggage. Diving with your peers from the local dive center, regardless of experience, is always an adventure.
Of course, you can always plan the trip yourself. Many popular dive resorts use exclusive booking agents or have telephone numbers that are answered at the resort. This makes it possible to sit at home and talk with the dive staff whom you’ll meet upon arrival. It adds a personal touch and ensures that your detailed questions will be answered on the spot.
Because they deal with dive bookings on a regular basis, exclusive agents are usually knowledgeable about dive packages and air fares, and will often make all the necessary arrangements, including air travel, if you desire. They are usually divers and have been to the resort being booked. Therefore, they can answer your questions based upon first-hand experience.
Neighborhood travel agents are generally not too well-versed on diving and dive packages. They can book your request, but unless you’re choosing one of the most popular resort areas, it helps if you know exactly what you want before contacting them.
There are two basic types of dive vacations: land destinations and live-aboard dive vessels. Land destinations offer hotel, cottage, or condominium accommodations and assorted diving packages. The resorts range from convenient and lavish to remote and somewhat primitive. Most first-time dive vacationers choose the more civilized destinations, then seek the adventurous locations as they gain experience.
Live-aboard dive vessels are floating mini-hotels with diving just outside your room. The boats are generally 100 feet or more in length, carry 15 to 25 passengers, and offer all the amenities of home. Most have double staterooms, some with private baths. The food is known for being plentiful and tasty.
Some live-aboards also offer land excursions, but usually it’s eat, sleep, and dive, dive, dive. One significant advantage of diving from a live-aboard dive vessel is accessibility. Since this type of dive vessel is always at sea, you’ll have an opportunity to dive at locations you couldn’t reach from shore. If you’re a dedicated diver, enjoy living at sea for several days, and are looking for “mind-blowing” underwater adventure, strongly consider spending your vacation on a live-aboard.
PLANNING THE TRIP
Important considerations when planning a dive vacation include paying attention to details, asking lots of questions, and preparing your equipment and yourself.
Whether you’re signing up for an escorted group trip with a local dive center or making the travel arrangements yourself, pay attention to the details. Understand what is included in the dive package (see sidebar) and get it in writing. Land packages usually include a specific number of days of diving, two or three boat dives per day, a night boat dive, unlimited shore dives, all tanks, and weights.
When going to a dive resort, or if the dive operation is associated with a hotel or condominium complex, accommodations may also be included. Always get a clear definition of what the number of nights and days in the package really means in terms of diving. Packages advertised as eight days and seven nights frequently equate to only six days of diving. You arrive too late to dive on day one and never dive on the day of departure. This clarification is important when comparing packages.
Most dive packages require advance reservations, so don’t book until you’re sure you’ll be able to go. Most resorts have strict cancellation policies. Final payment is due 30 to 60 days prior to departure and, quite often, if you cancel within 30 days of departure there’s no refund.
Some packages include airport transfers, taxes, and gratuities. Ensure these terms are stipulated in the service contract. If transfers aren’t part of the package, find out the best way to get from the airport to the resort, and the approximate costs. This gives you a feel for what type of transportation charges to expect. If gratuities are included, confirm who they’re for. They may cover the resort employees but not the dive staff. In diving, as with most service industries, tipping is an appropriate method of expressing your appreciation to the dive staff for excellent service.
When discussing what’s included in the package, always ask these questions: “What’s not included?” and “What will I need money for during the week or at departure?” The answers sometimes uncover additional expenses, such as tourist taxes, or more recently, environmental impact fees. Even if it appears that everything is included, verify what form of payment (credit cards, traveler’s checks, U.S. currency, etc.) is accepted.
Amazing as it may seem, some divers venture off into a foreign country without taking the time to learn or even ask if English is the nation’s primary language. Never assume everyone speaks English. If your destination’s inhabitants speak a foreign (to you) language, take the time to learn such simple phrases as “thank you,” “please,” “good morning,” and “hello.” An attempt to speak the language is sincerely appreciated by most.
You’ll be amazed at how much your hosts will go out of their way to help you after seeing and hearing how you’ve gone out of your way to understand them. Before your vacation, ask about your destination’s currency and monetary system, and the most recent exchange rates.
Dive equipment usually isn’t part of a vacation package. However, tanks, weights, and weight belts are typically included with boat dives. Buoyancy compensators (BCs), regulators, and wet suits can be rented at most destinations. Rental equipment quality varies depending upon dive operation, so ask about rentals before booking the trip. If renting less than a complete set of gear, ensure that the items being rented are compatible with the equipment you’re taking. For example, low-pressure inflamer hose connectors don’t fit all BCs. The best solution is to purchase gear before going.
It’s a good idea to take your own mask, snorkel, fins, exposure suit, buoyancy compensator, and regulator. Don’t risk the poor fit usually associated with rental gear. If using open-heel fins, take booties; they are seldom available for rent. Don’t plan on buying new equipment at resorts unless you first verify that your size and desired model are available. Many remote dive destinations carry minimal retail inventory. And as always, remember your spare parts kit.
Have your dive equipment serviced and tested before each trip. Your regulator should be overhauled at least annually, or when it’s been stored for a while. After the equipment is serviced, assemble and use it in a pool to ensure that everything functions properly. Examine all equipment before packing. Check the straps, releases, and zippers for wear and deterioration. Suiting up on a dive boat at a remote destination is not the place to discover that your bootie zippers have seized closed and are unusable.
To avoid possible damage to depth and pressure gauges, bottom timers, and dive computers when traveling by air, carry them with you. It isn’t necessary to carry the entire regulator, simply disconnect the high-pressure hose at the first stage and place the hose and gauge console in your carry-on luggage. Be sure to place a plug in the regulator’s high-pressure port before packing it. Bringing the correct size allen wrench and a small crescent wrench will allow you to reassemble the regulator without borrowing tools.
Prepare for your dive vacation by sharpening your diving skills. Spend some time in a pool using scuba. Practice buoyancy control, finning, mask clearing and replacement, regulator recovery, and emergency procedures. The more time spent practicing in the pool, the more comfortable you’ll be on the trip. If you’re inexperienced or haven’t been in the water for a while, consider taking a refresher course. If possible, take it before you leave. If time is a factor, refresher dives are usually available at resort destinations. They generally involve a reorientation to diving theory and procedures and an open-water dive under an instructor’s guidance, which lets you become reacquainted with diving in a supervised, controlled situation.
Before leaving for your first diving vacation, check with your medical insurance carrier to verify that you’re covered at the destination. Also inquire whether the policy covers air ambulance services and hyperbaric chamber treatment. If it doesn’t, consider purchasing diving insurance, such as is offered by Divers Alert Network (DAN) and others. Diving accidents, although rare, can be costly.
Many remote dive destinations have limited telephone service and are difficult to contact from the U.S. mainland. Before leaving, find out exactly how you can be reached while away. Leave this information and a detailed itinerary with a friend or relative in case of emergency.
DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT
It’s amazing how many divers arrive at dive resorts without their certification card (C-card). Most resorts will not let you dive without it. Many will let you participate in their introductory diver (resort course) program, but don’t expect to dive as a certified diver without a C-card. And take your dive log. It’s your proof of diving experience.
Tropical dive destinations outside the U.S. require specific identification and a return ticket for entry into the country. A passport or voter registration card will suffice for most Caribbean islands, whereas other destinations accept only passports. Learn what’s required well before your departure.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE DESTINATION
Every dive destination and dive operation is different. However, their basic operations are similar. Here’s what you can expect.
Your C-card will be required. Take it to the boat even if you’ve already shown it to the store personnel. You’ll be required to fill out a diving waiver and a safe diving practices form. Some operations also request that you complete a medical questionnaire.
If you booked a two-tank (per day) package, both dives will usually be in the morning: a deep dive followed by a shallow dive on a single boat trip. In Cayman, for example, a typical profile is 80 feet for 20 minutes, a minimum 50 minute surface interval, and 50 feet for 40 minutes.
Three-tank packages are usually a two-dive morning trip and a one-dive afternoon trip. Most week packages include one boat night dive. Some locations, such as Bonaire, offer great unlimited night diving from shore.
An increasing number of resorts are requesting that on the first day of the visit, divers do a shallow (30-40 feet) dive before participating in the regularly scheduled morning deep dive/shallow dive boat trip. This gives you the opportunity to get comfortable in the water and check out your equipment, and the divemasters a chance to observe your diving skills. This checkout also allows you and the divemaster to fine-tune your weighting requirements.
Before boarding, ensure that you have everything needed for diving. Unless told so by the staff, don’t assume that there will be rental equipment on the boat for you. Raise the question before the boat sets sail. Weights, weight belts, and tanks are usually kept on the boat, but rental gear is often stored elsewhere.
After boarding the boat, the captain normally gives a short briefing. It covers safety information, where to stow gear, the boat’s destination, and the boat’s dos and don’ts. Pay attention to this information and follow it. If you don’t understand something, ask!
The dive staff will generally conduct casual interviews with you during the trip to the dive site. They’re interested in your diving experience, when you last dived, and how comfortable you are in the water. Give honest answers. This isn’t the time to be macho! If you’re a bit apprehensive about diving an 80-foot profile, tell them. If you often have problems equalizing your ears, say so. If you’re newly certified and have never made an ocean dive, let it be known. Don’t try to hide anything.
This information is used to form compatible dive groups and assign dive staff to specific divers. It may even be used in determining the dive site or profile. Honest answers to the questions will enhance the diving experience for everyone involved. If the divemaster doesn’t ask these questions, don’t hesitate to volunteer the information. If you have a specific concern, make the dive staff aware of it.
When asked how much weight you need, don’t be surprised if the divemaster gasps at your reply. Many divers tend to overweight themselves. There’s a movement afoot, especially at tropical destinations, to have divers shed the pounds and fine-tune their weighting. Diving with too much weight creates a variety of problems for both the diver and the environment. So don’t be shocked when the divemaster strongly suggests trying 12 pounds instead of the 24 you requested. And don’t hesitate to execute a weighting check when you arrive at the dive site. A weighting check is an excellent idea for every diver especially at a new location.
Most dive operations provide a freshwater rinse bucket for your gear. Some have equipment storage near the boarding/diving location, and others require that you take the equipment to your room after each dive. It usually depends on whether it’s a dedicated dive resort or simply a resort that has diving.
Many dive resorts offer professional photography and video services on dive trips. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of these memorable products. They are most often professionally done and the results are usually guaranteed.
Dive vacations also present perfect opportunities for additional dive training. Advanced and specialty courses can often be integrated into the normal dive schedule. You get to expand your diving knowledge and skills while experiencing great diving in the process.
Your first dive vacation will definitely be the highlight of your diving career at least until your second trip.
QUESTIONS TO ASK...
Knowing what to ask makes planning any new adventure easier and more enjoyable. These questions will help you get the right answers for comparing dive vacation packages.
How many days of diving are included in the package?
Total number of boat dives?
How many boat dives per day?
Number of night boat dives?
Are boat dives guided?
Must everyone be part of the guided groups?
Maximum number of divers per trip?
Ratio of divers to dive staff on boat?
Size of dive boat(s) used?
What type of exposure protection is needed?
Are dive staff members instructors or divemasters?
What’s the typical morning boat trip profile?
Are divers required to adhere to the profile?
Is shore diving available? Daytime? Night?
How much does the diving package cost?
What equipment is included with the package?
What size (cubic feet) tanks are used? (80, 72, 63, 50?)
Are dive lights included with night dives?
Are tank and weights included for shore diving?
Equipment rental prices?
Where is gear stored overnight?
Is freshwater equipment rinse available?
Is there a hospital at the destination?
Is a hyperbaric chamber and physician available at the destination?
Where’s the nearest recompression chamber?
How are divers transported to the chamber?
Are inoculations required prior to visiting the destination?
What type of clothing is appropriate for the destination?
Are photography and video services available?
Are advanced and specialty training courses available?
Are equipment repair services available?
Does the staff speak English?
Exchange rate and type of currency used?
Type of room?
Number of nights included in package?
Are airport transfers included? What type of transport?
Are taxes included? List by type?
What meal plans are included or available? Costs?
Are gratuities included? Who do they cover?
Are rental cars necessary or available?
What potential expenses are not included?
What will I need money for during my stay?
Are credit cards, traveler’s checks and U.S. currency accepted at the resort?
What other recreational activities are available?