Scuba Diving Moves Upstream

To go scuba diving, one needs a $130 air tank, a $70 mask, $80 fins, a $30 snorkel, a $180 regulator, a $300 buoyancy vest, and a $300 computer you wear to help guard against nitrogen sickness--and that's just to get started. But until recently, cruise operators treated divers like rough-and-ready campers, people who would weather close quarters, little privacy, and dull food just to pursue their sport.

That's changing fast. Today, cruise companies are tailoring their mfferings to match the tastes of those who can pay to play the sport. They're building spacious staterooms, cooking better food, conducting more informative dive briefings, and even designing seasick-proof boats in an effort to take their business upstream. Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Nekton Diving Cruises (800 899-6753), Aggressor Fleet of Morgan City, La. (800 348-2628), and Peter Hughes Diving of Coral Gables, Fla. (800 932-6237) all offer upscale diving experiences at prices ranging from $1,300 to $3,000 a week.

The extra attention and amenities make all the difference. On a recent six-day cruise on the Nekton Pilot, I enjoyed five dives a day in the vicinity of Bimini in the Bahamas. The $1,350-per-person package featured day and nighttime dive sites with towering reefs, deep walls of coral, and shipwrecks. The Nekton Pilot, which can carry up to 34 customers, offers staterooms complete with double bed and private bath, a sundeck with Jacuzzi, and delectable cuisine with an island flair. The topper: Nekton's unique twin-hulled design minimizes wave action, so only the most delicate stomachs will be unsettled. On our trip, only two of the 20 passengers succumbed briefly on the first day at sea (I happened to be one of them).

Living and diving from the same boat all week, you avoid having to lug around equipment, ride wave-tossed skiffs to crowded dive sites, and worry about where to find a good coral reef. And there's no getting gouged for resort-priced meals and drinks, since these are included in the price.

A typical live aboard day goes like this: Rise, eat breakfast, dive. Move the boat, dive. Eat lunch while the boat is moving, dive. Dive. Eat dinner while the sun sets. Dive. It's as effortless as falling into the water, which you do a lot. No two dives are alike. And on most cruises, the crew briefs the divers at each new site, telling them what fish and other creatures to watch for, describing the topography of the ocean floor, and warning about currents and other conditions. They failed to warn me about the remoras, though. On one dive, two of these pesky fish--which cling to sharks and boats by means of a dorsal fin that acts like a suction cup--followed me in hot pursuit, hoping to catch a ride.

On our first drop, divers scattered like parachute jumpers as we descended 60 feet and the current carried us past a coral reef. A six-foot nurse shark watched us drift by. That night, my dive buddy, Elmer Milz, and I spotted a large octopus that changed colors from purple to grey as it tried to disappear from our lights. In the shallower, murkier water of Gingerbread Shoals the next day, thousands of tiny life forms thrived. Then we returned to water of 100-foot-plus visibility and 130-foot-deep coral-laden cliffs. On our last day, we pulled hand-over-hand down a rope, fighting a five-knot current that stretched us taut like flags on the line, until we reached a sunken barge 100 feet deep that teemed with snappers, angel fish, and other life.

MAYBE THE MOON. Swimming in a giant aquarium is a thrill in itself. The best live aboard ships improve on that experience. On the Nekton boat, a photo lab developed our film. And for an extra fee of $75 to $250, the crew offered advanced scuba courses. Sessions in underwater naturalism, photography, and night diving added immeasurably to my appreciation of the undersea world.

I could have used a navigation refresher course. Returning from our last night's dive, my buddies and I mistook the full moon for the ship's spotlight. We were a half-mile downcurrent when we surfaced. As a chaser skiff dragged us back, I saw phosphorous trail off of Elmer's fins like sparks from a muffler dragging on the highway. On a dive trip, even blunders can be beautiful.