A special reader-submitted article on certified SCUBA enthusiasts using regular cruise ships for exciting and exotic dive vacations.
It is very easy to have a great DIVE experience on a regular cruise You may have never considered taking a cruise vacation as a dive vacation. Many divers think only of booking a week long resort stay at an island location for their long awaited vacation. But in fact, cruise lines have been accommodating divers for many years and regularly sail to great dive islands as well as terrific vacation itineraries.
And while the whole concept of "dive vacations" on a major cruise line may not have received much advertising attention lately, not long ago lines Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean had special departments onboard just to accommodate SCUBA divers. In most cases today you will now be on your own, but for advanced divers like myself the cruise lines still provide more than enough, and those lines plus Carnival and Celebrity have been putting divers in the water quietly and steadily every week for years now.
On a seven day cruise, most ships stop at three to five islands in the Caribbean, Mexico or Hawaii, most of which will be prime dive sites. The cruise lines usually offer their own excursions specifically for SCUBA (that include full equipment rental) and many other water related activities like snorkeling, SNUBA (a bubble helmet with air line; think "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea") and an underwater scooter with a big bubble helmet called Breathing Observation Bubble (BOB).
Some of the large ships have actual "dive shops" on board to facilitate divers and snorkelers (although these are the programs that have been scaled back). The will help arrange excursions for dive trips at pre-designated islands, may sell a limited amount of gear on-board, and have an in-house Dive Master to shepherd the "cruise divers" to various pick up sites or in-water excursions. The actual dive operations are either a short walk from the cruise ship, or they will provide transportation.
Are you ever taken SCUBA excusion on a cruise? Tell us here: SCUBA Cruises
Some ships (Royal Caribbean, for example) ) still offer on-board SCUBA certification training for guests who want to learn SCUBA en route to the dive islands. The book work and pool work is actually done in the ship's pools while it is at sea. They then arrange check-out dives with a traditional island dive shop. On that day, the guests complete the in-water portion of the certification process in the warm blue Caribbean, or off the coast of Hawaii or Mexico... instead of back home in a rock quarry in the Midwest or in one of the Great Lakes!
What if you don't have time for certification but have always wanted to try SCUBA diving? No problem. Look for the "Discover SCUBA" shore excursions offered on most Caribbean cruises. These are an introduction to diving which is completed all in one 4 hour trip. Experienced instructors spend about 90 minutes to teach guests all about the dive gear and safety concerns and then swimmers are allowed to try out a real dive typically in more actual shallow water under close supervision.
What are the Common Dive Sites on Cruises?
The list of islands and dive sites where SCUBA excursions are offered are well known in the dive community. Cruise ships routinely offer itineraries with "hit islands" like...
- Grand Cayman
- Costa Maya, Mexico
- Cozumel, Mexico
- Key West, Florida
- The Bahamas
- St. Thomas
- St. Maarten
- San Juan, Puerto Rico
- St. Kitts
- St. Lucia
- Margarita Island, Venezuela
How to Get to the Dive Sites
As mentioned, at least one tour for certified divers will be offered through the ships' shore tour office in each port, but you can also choose to go on your own, as I will explain later.
One of the advantages in booking your dive through the cruise ship is the fact that cruise companies hold the local dive operators to the same level of mega-customer service as provided on board the ship. If one of the contracted dive operators has a problem getting you back to the ship, the cruise line will take responsibility for getting you back on board the ship (or even keeping it in port) before they sail to the next destination. But if are late returning from an excursion you booked on your own- you may just be standing on the dock watching that big white ship sail away while you wonder how to get to the next island! (Cruise lines have staff reps at each destination that can help guests make arrangements to catch up with the boat). Note: When the cruise line says be back on board at 5 PM…they mean it!
Cruise line dive excursions are usually limited to 10-15 divers (and alternatively, if they don't get a minimum number they may cancel the excursion), so the best way to secure a slot is to pre-book on-line via your cruise line web site. It is unpleasant to walk on the ship on your big departure day and find out all of the slots on your dream vacation are already filled.
But if this happens, you can still get a private operator reservation via the internet (available on the ship). Look at shops associated with your dive provider, PADI or NAUI-and (in all cases) be sure to have your Certification Card with you.
You are of course free to make your own reservations with private operators in advance of your cruise instead of booking through the cruise line anyway. In fact, private bookings are usually cheaper and you will be subjected to less "cattle-boat/mass-tourist" combined diving and snorkeling trips. Caribbean dive prices routinely run $100-$130 USD including full rental of gear for a half day two-tank dive.
Here is another trick: If you don't already have a dive booked, you may still find local tour operators waiting on shoreside piers just as you exit the ship. If you have a C card in your pocket, someone will route you to last minute deals that are generally cheaper than most pre-arranged trips, and you may have some haggling leeway. Just remember you only have 6 to 8 hours in port. This is a last ditch effort, but is an option if all else fails.
Divers are legendary for buying very expensive and heavy gear and taking it with them to far away and exotic locations. Taking your own gear is always an option, but I have found it to be more trouble than it is worth. It generally only saves $10 to $20 off the price of a dive. Hauling your own dive gear for two divers adds about 50 lbs and one or two extra bags of luggage to the trip (Experienced Diver note: Get something with wheels to haul dive gear on and off the boat).
When airlines started charging extra baggage prices for checked luggage, it became far less attractive to haul extra bags of dive gear at $25-$75 a bag, more expensive than the typical rental price for all the necessary gear – usually just $10-$20 extra over the price of the dive. Furthermore, I have found the rental gear to be dive worthy, and you get the unexpected opportunity to try out gear from a lot of different manufacturers. It is also very nice to hand it all back at the end of the dive for them to service, clean and maintain while you walk away with just your fins, mask and snorkel.
Taking SCUBA-Cruise Vacation
What's not to like? Diving in absolute luxury accommodations, terrific food and nightly entertainment at about $100 a day (excursions and drinks are extra).
You will definitely dominate the formal dining table discussions with answers to the nightly question "So, what did you do today on the island?"
Are you ever taken SCUBA excusion on a cruise? Tell us here: SCUBA Cruises