Liveaboard Dive Trips and the GUE Diver
If there is any more relaxing diving vacation than a liveaboard dive boat holiday, I don’t know what it is. Walking from your cabin to the dining room to the diving deck and then stepping off the back of the boat is as easy as it gets. Add to that the fact that you will most likely only have to set up your gear once and never have to lug your tanks around and you have close to the perfect diving holiday. However, liveaboard diving also poses some unique considerations for the GUE diver.
The first of these considerations concerns breathing gases. As the awareness of the value of breathing nitrox as a diving gas has grown, most liveaboards now offer nitrox as either their default gas or as an option. Liveaboard divers can easily do many more dives in a week than can their shore-bound cousins and those N2 levels can start to add up. Many liveaboard operators design their trips and plan their dive sites to make it difficult for the unaware diver to dive below the MOD of their nitrox and some even factor in dive site changes to force these same divers to take adequate surface interval breaks. It is a sad commentary on diver education that they must do this, but as the number of liveaboard divers increases and nitrox diving becomes more and more the rule rather than the exception, liveaboard operators are simply looking at this from a liability perspective.
Interestingly, some boats pass on the nitrox surcharge directly to the boat crew as part of their compensation. Thus it is in the best interests of the crew to make sure the nitrox membrane is up and working. Most boats offer nitrox 32 as the standard nitrox mixture so this works very well for the GUE diver. I would suggest that you brush up on your Minimum Deco rules before you take a liveaboard trip as you will be doing a lot of diving and it is highly unlikely that any of your boat crew will be able to answer any of your Minimum Deco questions concerning average depths, repetitive dives, and surface intervals.
Some liveaboards will offer oxygen for the qualified technical diver, but most do not. If technical diving is in your plans, it is a good idea to confirm with the operator that they have the stage bottles and decompression bottles you need. Do not expect to find any degree of standardization on liveaboards. You will find just about everything under the sun in terms of equipment on these dive boats, particularly when your travels take you off the beaten path. I would strongly suggest you sort these matters out with your operator well in advance of your booking your trip and get this in writing. Arriving for a week of tech I diving on a liveaboard and finding they expect you to dive steel cylinders with your 3mm suit and lug around steel stage bottles can definitely wreck a GUE diver’s trip. Luckily, the ubiquitous aluminum 80 seems to be the tank of choice for most liveaboard operators but, as we discovered on a trip recently, not all AL 80’s are created equal. We suffered through one dive with what we thought were standard AL 80’s but were actually the version of those cylinders that remain neutrally buoyant when empty and thus were considerably negative at the beginning of the dive. Suffice to say that they were rather “suboptimal” as stage bottles and we rectified the situation for the remainder of our dives by sorting through all the available cylinders and setting aside several for our use.
You will find many liveaboards also deploy a “hang bar” at 15’ or so and some of them either attach a stage bottle with regulators to this bar or run a hose with surface supplied gas to one or more second stages. It goes without saying that if you need either the hangbar or the gas you probably were not paying enough attention in your Fundamentals class… As I mentioned earlier, I would be very surprised if your boat crew were familiar with Minimum Deco but you will get lots of practice with it on a liveaboard trip. I would also hazard a guess that you are going to be questioned by other divers who see you doing a different ascent strategy, avoiding the 15’ stop and avoiding the hang bar! This is your chance to become an ambassador for GUE and explain our approach to decompression so be prepared. You will probably also get the chance to explain the concept of Minimum Gas as every boat I have ever been on (with the exception of a couple of DIR boats) briefed their divers to be “back on the boat with 500 psi”. Bear in mind that not everyone will be interested in GUE dive planning so I would suggest you answer if asked but don’t push! Let your performance and ability in the water speak for itself and interested divers will seek you out on the surface interval. I personally know of several divers who went on to become GUE members and seek out GUE training after diving with GUE divers on a liveaboard boat.
Many liveaboards also have divemaster-led dives and this can sometimes create a bit of a problem for GUE divers as the DM’s will most likely expect you to follow their profile, which will probably be different from what GUE divers practice. From experience, I have found that most liveaboard divemasters are there because they love to dive and are very interested in GUE as a general rule. They have seen just about everything and they are more than happy to find squared-away divers on their boat for a week. They would much rather enjoy their diving as opposed to baby sitting divers who bring constant “drama” to their day.
I would suggest that you let your performance speak for itself. The first dive on the boat is usually a check out dive where the boat crew is able to assess your skill level. This is the perfect time to demonstrate your skill level and let them know that you can “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”. Remember that they have heard just about everything before and showing up on the boat and immediately telling everyone within earshot that you are the most recent incarnation of Aquaman is not going to do you any favors. Let them see you in the water and become familiar with your skill level, and then politely enquire as to the dive plans, etc. They will probably be more than happy to discuss things with you and listen to your requests. I have yet to be disappointed in this regard and formed some very good friendships with many of these divemasters. On just about every trip, someone has tried my backplate and wing and come away with a new shopping list.
Most likely this will be most of your fellow divers first exposure to GUE. This is an excellent opportunity for you to lead by example and be a role model for those wishing to increase their diving abilities. Over the course of a few days they will probably start asking you questions about your equipment and skills and enquire how you are able to do something like backwards kick or manage your buoyancy in the water column with such precision. We always take video cameras on our trips and I wish I had a dollar for every time another diving videographer or photographer asked me how we could remain motionless in the water without touching the reef, or how to do a backwards kick. When fellow divers can actually see the utility of these skills first hand, it goes a long way towards promoting better diving training. Again, this is your chance to introduce your fellow divers to GUE and help us work to make safer, more skilled divers who do less damage to our underwater ecosystems. As GUE instructor Fraser Purdon once told me, being an advocate for GUE is best done “gently” so keep that in mind when you are visiting with your new diving friends.
Some liveaboards have a particular reputation for being DIR friendly. These make it easy with standard gases being “on tap” and a crew that understands both your equipment and your diving. I particularly enjoy these trips and have started planning more and more of my diving around these boats. In this case, you will feel like you are diving with a bunch of old friends and you will appreciate how our standardized skills and equipment can create seamless dive teams made up of divers from various locations around the globe.
As a parting word, remember that it can be particularly easy to become dehydrated on liveaboard dive boats with the constant air conditioning in your cabin, the usually warm winds and heat, and the higher than average number of dives you can do. Remember to hydrate yourself properly and increase your fluid uptake compared to what you would normally consume at home. You will need it, trust me. Your body will be working harder in terms of decompression stress so make a conscious effort to help yourself in this regard. Most liveaboards will actually emphasize this and have lots of liquids on hand. These go great with the nearly endless supply of snacks, (and if you are really lucky homemade cookies,) always on hand… but that is another story.
But above all else remember to enjoy your diving. Liveaboard diving is some of the best diving in the world and once you try it you will probably start counting down the days to your next liveaboard vacation. Best of luck and enjoy some of the most relaxing diving you will ever do.