Have you ever wanted to go to the Maldives and dive some of the most beautiful reefs in the world? We just finished a week of diving aboard the Emperor Leo Maldives liveaboard, one of the six boats in the Emperor Maldives Fleet. Maldives scuba diving is some of the best in the world and we had an amazing time. Here is our review.
Emperor Leo Maldives liveaboard diving
We decided on “The Best of the Maldives” itinerary in May – seventeen dives over 7 days, including one night dive. There is no diving on the first and last days. Of course, we did them all!
Getting to the boat is easy if you fly into Male airport on the day of departure. And even if you’re already in the Maldives, you can do like we did and take a water taxi back to the airport to get picked up. The crew of the Leo will fetch you at an assigned time from Male airport and transport you, via taxi and then speedboat, to the liveaboard.
May is definitely not high season for Maldives dive travel and we did have to make a few adjustments to the itinerary because of the rainy weather and high seas. We prepared for this, so we didn’t feel as though this really impacted our experience. The captain found alternative sites for us to dive which, except for one resort house reef, were all great. We were happy because it’s obvious that they work very hard to find alternative dive sites instead of just canceling them outright. Even though we were unable to dive 3-4 of the planned sites because of rough weather, the crew made up for this by finding alternate sites in more protected areas.
The Emperor Leo boat itself
When you board the Emperor Leo, the very first thing we noticed is how dated the ship is. It could really use a couple of months in dry dock to give it an update to at least match the photos you see online. Everything looks like it was last updated in the 80s – from the plush furniture which felt damp in the humidity, to the bar and the bedrooms. The bathrooms on the ship – at least ours – contained fixtures that were a little oxidized, tiles with old grout holding it together in some spots. But it was clean, and that’s really what matters most. One thing that was annoying is that our bedroom door wouldn’t shut unless you slammed it hard. This really sucked when one of us got up earlier or went to bed later than the other.
The rooms felt a little humid at times, and when we first went downstairs, the entire area was pungent with the scent of pine cleaner. It seemed like it was meant to cover up something worse. Fortunately, that smell only stuck around for the first few hours. I think the ship goes through a thorough cleaning after each trip and they clearly use lots of pine cleaner. So in the end, it was probably a good thing. They also asked us to keep the air conditioner running at all times to keep air circulating to prevent mold.
If it sounds like I am being negative about the Emperor Leo, perhaps I am. But I am only talking about the actual boat. I think even the crew knows it needs a date with dry dock badly, which I suspect is forthcoming. Still, we do recommend sailing on the Emperor Leo. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, the rest of the experience more than makes up for any downsides. Our initial impression may have been “We wish we had a nicer boat” but after just a couple of days, we decided that the Emperor Leo Maldives liveaboard was completely worth what we paid. And once you get used to the fact that it not as nice as it is in the pictures, everything was fine! Aside from intermittent A/C issues in the common area, everything just worked!
Emperor Leo’s Amenities
Television: The Emperor Leo has a large flat screen television that you can use. Unfortunately, there is no entertainment on board. If you want to watch anything, you have to bring it yourself. While the photos on their web site show TVs in the rooms, our room did not include one.
WiFi: You can use the boat’s WiFi for a charge. It’s actually just someone’s phone used as a hot spot, I think. You’re far better off getting a SIM card in Male before you embark. It will cost you around $20 and you won’t be confined to the living room to use it. We found decent connectivity pretty much everywhere we went, with the exception of a few places when we were far away from other islands.
Books: There is a tiny selection of reading materials available. I think they could really use more. The selection was limited to a few old novels, a couple of Fish ID books, and a few things left behind by other travelers. This was in stark contrast to other liveaboards I’ve been on, where there’s quite a lot to read.
Electricity: The electricity in the room uses the 3-pin UK style plug found here. Upstairs, they have power bars that use European style plugs found here. The staff asked us not to leave anything charging in our rooms unattended because it was a fire risk. I’ve never had that request made on a liveaboard before, so I wondered about the condition of the wiring, honestly.
Hot tub: This is where marketing truly clashed with reality. When you look at the pictures on all the liveaboard sites, the hot tub looks awesome – glowing blue lights illuminate the deck and the beautiful hot tub on the bow. The reality is a lot different. For example, this picture is from their Web site. Doesn’t it look inviting?
And this is a picture I took. Nobody used the hot tub. There was never even water in it. They did offer to fill it up if anyone wanted to use it, but it just didn’t look that appealing. We found a lot of things on the boat that fell into this category.
Emperor Leo Maldives staff
Next to the diving itself, this was the best part. No matter how luxurious a boat is or how great Maldives diving may be, you simply cannot have a good time on a liveaboard without a great staff. In our view, the Emperor Leo has zero issues here. Stina (our trip director), Maseeh (our guide), the captain, chef, deck hands, and dhoni pilots – it all ran like a well-oiled machine.
They were all outstanding. If there were issues (rare), they were handled immediately. There were nine divers on this trip and we interacted with them frequently. We didn’t hear any complaints about the staff. Not one.
Whether it was a suggestion about the itinerary, a special request from the kitchen, or a minor cabin issue, anything and everything was handled well. We particularly liked Stina’s honesty and realistic view of what was possible, along with Maseeh’s sense of humor.
Food on the Emperor Leo
When we first booked this trip, I emailed the company to tell them I am a vegetarian and to assure myself that I would get good food on the trip. My experience on other liveaboards suggested I be persistent on this point so I wouldn’t be served twigs and berries only. The Emperor Leo chefs did not disappoint. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks were all full of vegetarian options. Some simple. Some more complex. All delicious. (It probably helped that Stina, the boat director, is also a vegetarian.) Everyone enjoyed the food.
All meals are buffet style.
Pre-dive breakfast: Coffee and toast with various spreads – peanut butter, Nutella, jams and jellies. Coffee was available 24 hours a day. If it was up to me though, I’d switch out the old coffee makers for new ones that do coffee on demand. Sometimes, coffee would sit there for hours and no one wants to drink coffee that old. A Nespresso or a coffee machine with an internal grinder is far better.
Full Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, fresh fruit (like papaya, mango, apples, and pineapple), bread, sausage and bacon, various other options – vegetarian and non-vegetarian, local and western. Eggs made to order if you ask.
Lunch and dinner: Lunch and dinner usually contained similar items. The exception being that dinner included soup. There was always fresh fruit, 2 or 3 main courses that were often vegetarian, 2 or 3 others that were not, several sides to go with it, bread, and dessert. Although there were sometimes a couple of items that were a little adventurous (for example, a nice pepper/okra dish that was spicy), most of the food was suitable for every taste. If you’re a really picky eater, you should let them know in advance. They genuinely seem to want to work to accommodate every taste.
The food was good. No question. No complaints. I’ve even guessed at the ingredients and made a few of the dishes at home.
Emperor Leo bar
After your day of diving, the Emperor Leo has a fully stocked bar so you can partake in your favorite beverage. Local beer is about $5, with others being a little more expensive. Same rules apply on the Leo that apply on every other liveaboard we’ve been on. First drink = last dive – a rule no one ever tries to break or argue with. Very sensible, obviously.
Cocktails and wine are also available. While many were affordable, some were a little too expensive for our taste. The list is below. Halef bought a bottle of wine. He’s not a big drinker, so the bottle lasted him for the entire trip. It was much cheaper than buying by the glass. Everything goes on a tab and you pay for it on the final day.
Maldives liveaboards use dhonis
In general, Maldives liveaboard diving boats use dhonis. Dhonis are smaller boats that tag along with you on your itinerary. This was our first time using them, and I really don’t see any downside, except that you have no access to your dive gear while the main boat is moving. The major benefit is that 20% of the main boat is not taken up by a dive deck! It’s all living space. The main boat is your hotel. The dhoni is your Über to the dive sites. And it has everything – a camera table, a compressor (including Nitrox, which is free on the Leo), a sun deck up top, warm showers on the back, and a fantastic crew that helps you with any equipment issues.
And speaking of equipment, the Emperor Leo has a full line of rental diving equipment – including many accessories. You just need to reserve the main stuff in advance. We brought all our own dive gear and only needed a reel for my surface marker buoy, which I forgot. If you happen to forget a dive torch, reel, SMB, reef hook, or another small item, chances are, they have it. See “Packing for a Liveaboard Diving Trip” for more tips on what to bring.
What we saw diving in the Maldives
The Leo took us to places with lots of mantas and plenty of schooling fish. On this trip, you’re very likely to see many white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, Napoleon wrasses, groupers, octopus, batfish, turtles, and so much more.
What everyone really wanted though was whale sharks. On our second to last day, we went out looking for them. Because of the weather, we didn’t expect much and we were unable to spot one because of the choppiness.
We gave up looking and went for a dive instead. During the dive, we decided that no one would use any noise signals unless it was for a whale shark or an emergency. Most of the group floated along the reef. A few ventured out into the blue to keep an eye out – just in case.
It was a really nice drift dive. Most of us probably would only have been mildly disappointed if there was no whale shark because the reef was really quite beautiful. But at around 50 minutes, we heard the frantic tapping of metal on cylinder. Ten seconds later, a whale shark comes into view followed by the rest of the divers.
I immediately started to follow it, taking pictures until I couldn’t keep up any longer. It was funny because the whale shark was swimming against the current and nothing in its body was moving. It was only using the propulsion created when it opened its giant mouth. Meanwhile, I was using all my strength to keep up and thought my heart was going to explode! It was our first time seeing a whale shark while diving (as opposed to snorkeling). It was awesome!
The night dive was, unfortunately, disappointing. It wasn’t even a “real” dive. The crew set up a bright light on the back of the boat, which attracted a manta. We all hopped into the water and watched a manta feed from the bottom. Halef and I were bored of this after about 15-20 minutes and resurfaced. Others stayed down. You’ll see plenty of mantas on your trip. A night dive where you can see all types of life would have been far better than this was. To be honest, it seems a bit contrived and lazy to us.
The big picture
In the end, this was a bit of an eye-opener for us in a positive way. It put liveaboard diving in perspective. We’ve been on a few liveaboards now. From our super economy liveaboard in Komodo National Park to the Sea of Cortez and higher end trips in Raja Ampat. Unless you’re paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for a single trip, a liveaboard is what it is. You’re mostly paying for the location. Our Komodo liveaboard was super low end. It cost us several hundred each. Raja Ampat, while nice, but not luxurious, was higher mid range and costs much more. Unless you have a super outstanding boat, a lot of times you’re paying for the location. And this is definitely the case here. The diving is what matters. If you’re looking for a mix of diving and a luxurious boat with lots to do, then Emperor Leo is not for you. If you want that, expect to pay a premium for it.
For us, the Emperor Leo was completely worth the money. It may not be luxury, but for less than $2,000, you shouldn’t expect it to be. At the end of the day, from our experience with the crew, our food, the wonderful things we saw, and the friends we met, we felt it was a bargain.
One last thing. As is the case on all the boats we’ve been on, the Emperor Leo Maldives liveaboard expects you to tip your crew. They make it clear to you to base your tip on your experience. We each tipped the recommended $100 and gave a little extra to our guide, who we thought was wonderful. If you can afford a liveaboard, you can afford to tip. Leave what you can afford. On the Leo, they divide all tips equally. I like that.
We’ll be back here someday – perhaps on another Emperor Maldives boat. While our expectations for the boat itself will definitely be lower next time, we can promise you that diving, the crew, and the food were all top-notch! Just a few things would have turned a good experience into an exceptional one. More to do on the boat itself, books, better coffee, more entertainment, etc.
Would we do this trip again though? You bet!
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