Dreaming of a dive trip on a seafaring shuttle bus with lousy buffets and expensive drinks? If you’ve been a diver for as long as I have, (thirty years) you have surely encountered the unexpected hiccup or incredulous false advertising on a given liveaboard.Choosing to spend eight to ten days in a cramped space with several strangers sounds daunting in itself but add to that poorly designed cabins, a congested dive deck, and mediocre common areas, finding the perfect liveaboard remains a challenge. After all, it’s an l-i-v-e-aboard, so what are our expectations?
The Ideal Vessel
Look no further than my dreamboat, the Arenui. At 43 meters, this Phinisi, a traditional Indonesian wooden schooner, accommodates a maximum of sixteen passengers managed by twenty-two staff members. It hardly feels crowded especially when napping on the sky lounge deck or getting a massage after the third dive of the day.
Much of the vessel is built of recycled wood from Javanese houses and handcrafted with traditional techniques. Using exquisite local craftsmanship, each cabins’ designs and décor reflect a specific Indonesian province such as Sulawesi or Kalimantan. The spacious rooms are complete with en suite bathrooms and comfortable AC for those humid, windless nights.
The ideal vessel does not place a brick over the drain in the shower to offset the sewer smell or patch a leaky toilet with duct tape as was my experience on two different liveaboards in Belize and Egypt respectively. We never take for granted working showers and modern plumbing especially when there is nowhere else ‘to go’ on a liveaboard!
Aside from aesthetics, the layout of the vessel is critical for a comfortable diving experience. Most divers these days have loads of camera equipment including large casings, flashes, extensions, etc., A spacious deck allows for ample size freshwater tanks to clean off your toys and hang your wet suits and bathing suits out to dry.
The Arenui grants these wishes and more with plenty of elbow room for kitting up. Having designated the majority of its main deck as the dive deck, divers can sigh a breath of relief that their gear will rest safely on long wooden counters overnight or protected in strategic cubby holes. Plenty of charging stations abound for all of your gadgets including a computer with photo editing software.
Cuisine and Libations
The menus aboard this “boutique” diving vessel outshine several other liveaboards’ meal plans which often entail heavy starch, bland vegetables, and boxed wine. All of that diving will surely spike your hunger levels but not to fear! Several meals and snack breaks throughout your day await you on this floating palace.
What if I told you fresh spring rolls line the buffet along with local fresh fruit, homemade breads and pastries? Or one can opt for a traditional Soto Banjar, (chicken and egg soup with chilies and Kaffir lime leaves). For lunch we were blessed with sumptuous summer salads, fresh deli meats and cheeses as well as plenty of local Indonesian fare like Nasi Goreng (fried rice).
A four-course dinner sets the table in the evening including exotic seafood salads, beef satay and grilled fish with tomato sambal nicely paired with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio. Like most liveaboards alcohol is permitted only if you have stopped diving for the day but if you decide to do that night dive, hot chocolate and warm towel welcome you back as you exit the tender.
The Arenui offers several dive trips within Indonesia, particularly, Raja Ampat, Komodo, the Forgotten Islands, and Alor. My eleven-day trip through Raja Ampat (Eastern Indonesia) began in Sorong which is a four-hour flight from the capital, Jakarta.
If you are looking for schools of Tiger sharks or large pelagic fish this is not the destination for you. Raja Ampat, one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, celebrates its magnificence in the small things. Unspoiled fields of magenta, neon orange and pink coral lay before you as you swim through 1,300 types of reef fish.
Several marine species camouflage within the coral and are impossible to see without the help of your expert dive guide. We were lucky to have Ronald, whose 16 years of diving experience in the area allowed us to get up close and personal with species such as a pregnant pygmy seahorse the size of my pinky nail hiding in a sea fan, a pipefish that resembled a stray leaf floating in the shallows and the endemic Wobbegong shark napping in a rocky crevice.
Heaps of colorful nudibranchs decorated brain corals alongside fanciful, striped sea slugs and indigo flatworms. Lying back on the ocean floor at a Manta feeding station, the elegant rays circled above our heads like silent angels.
At one point, I had the sneaking suspicion I was being watched. I slowly looked to the right only to discover two yellowish eyes peering out from the coral. Only when the coral began to pulsate and move did I realize that a large octopus had been sitting next to me the entire time I watched the Manta show. He gracefully gathered his wily tentacles and scooted away under a rock blanching gray and while his ‘barnacled’, eyes vanished.
Cuttlefish meandered under soft corals while schools of Sweetlips huddled below a cavern ledge. And then there was the Mantis shrimp- hands down one of my favorite entertainers in all of the sea. With peacock colored ‘wings’ and uncanny speed, these little creatures pack a punch hard enough to smash your camera lens.
Scientists continue to study their club-like appendages (which operate like a bow and arrow) and how to mimic their intensity on a macro scale. In addition, they have the most complex vision system than any other animal on the planet. They give “googly eyes” a whole new meaning!
When we weren’t geeking out over Mantis shrimp trivia and sea slug identification, we explored mangroves and caves, visited a local village and pored over our underwater photography with wonder and elation. Though I have touched on only the tip of the iceberg here, Raja Ampat boasts so many marine treasures, it is impossible to list them all here.
One must simply go. Along with the beautiful, unspoiled waters of this region and spectacular diving, the talented staff and overall experience on the Arenui is close to none. My only recommendation is that if you enjoy your cocktails at sunset or wine with dinner, you may want to pack a separate bag for your alcohol as Indonesia imposes steep taxes for the import of booze. Check it out at www.thearenui.com.
If you have already been on the Arenui, the ideal place to shop for other luxury liveaboards is the annual Scuba Show that takes place in Long Beach, California sporting over fifty dive tour operators including the top liveaboards around the globe. Tour options range from Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Maldives to Greenland, Zanzibar and the Andaman Islands.
Vendors sell much of the dive gear at wholesale including BCDs, dive computers and heaps of high-end underwater camera equipment. In addition, the show hosts a variety of courses and seminars ranging from Diving Safety in Remote Locations to Underwater Video Techniques.
They also have amazing door prizes, (it’s true, I won a trip to the Cayman Islands!) so sign up for tickets at www.scubashow.com. This event was unfortunately canceled this year due to COVID 19 but will be back in 2022. Finally, if you are going to treat yourself to an expensive dive trip, be sure to do your research so you don’t end up on an ocean-going Greyhound bus with a sack lunch and an out of order toilet, there are plenty of other options!