The Emperor Leo liveaboard is one of the six boats in the Emperor Maldives Fleet. From whale sharks, to manta rays, all the way down to nudibranchs and other macro, there is something for everyone to see on this trip. We had an amazing time! Here is our review.
The Emperor Leo liveaboard
When you look at the pictures on all the liveaboard sites, the Emperor Leo liveaboard looks like a beautiful boat – glowing blue lights illuminate the deck, a classy looking dining room with beautiful furniture, a luxurious, beautifully lit hot tub on the bow, rooms that, while not 5 star, are quite nice. The reality is a little – ok, a lot – different. This ship’s marketing does not quite match it.
For example, this picture is from their Web site:
And this is a picture I took. Nobody used the hot tub. In fact, there was never water in it.
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 grout that needed cleaning. Our bedroom door wouldn’t shut unless you slammed it hard, which sucked if one of us got up earlier than the other.
The rooms were felt a little humid at times, and when we first went downstairs, the entire area was pungent with the scent of pine cleaner. Not in a good way that suggested it had just been cleaned, but a smell so strong that it seemed like it was meant to cover up something worse. Fortunately, that smell only stuck around for the first few hours. After I thought about it, I imagined that the ship goes through a thorough cleaning after each trip. So in the end, it was 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, I want to be very clear that I am only talking about the boat itself. I think even the crew knows it needs a date with dry dock badly. Having said that, you should not be deterred from booking the Leo. 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 our impression after a week was that the Emperor Leo liveaboard was completely worth what we paid. And once you get used to the fact that it might not be as nice in the pictures, everything was fine! Aside from intermittent A/C issues in the common area, everything just worked!
Emperor Leo liveaboard diving
We decided on “The Best of the Maldives” itinerary in May – seventeen dives over 7 days. There is no diving on the first or last days. May is definitely not high season and we did have to make a few adjustments to the itinerary because of the rainy weather and high seas. We were 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 very happy because 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 Leo took us to places with lots of mantas and plenty of schooling fish. On this trip, you’re very likely to also see many white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, Napoleon wrasses, groupers, octopus, batfish, turtles, and so much more.
(See more pictures of the amazing marine life we encountered at the bottom of this post.)
What everyone really wanted though: whale sharks. On our second to last day, we went out looking for them. Because of the weather though, we didn’t expect much. In fact, we were not able to spot one because of the choppiness. We gave up looking and went for a dive instead. During the dive, 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. In fact, most of us probably would only have been mildly disappointed if there was no whale shark because it was a nice reef anyway. 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. Mission accomplished! It was our first time seeing a whale shark while diving (as opposed to snorkeling). It was awesome!
You dive from dhonis
Diving in most of the Maldives is done from 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 to them, 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. 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 equipment – including many accessories. You just need to reserve it 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.
Emperor Leo staff
Next to the diving itself, this was the best part. No matter how luxurious the boat is or how great the diving is, 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 taken care of immediately. 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. In fact, I emailed them several times over the course of the year to be 100% sure. 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 staff 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.
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.
In fact, I’ve guessed at the ingredients and made a few of the dishes at home. The food was good. No question. No complaints.
The Emperor Leo liveaboard has a 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.
The big picture
In the end, this was a bit of an eye-opener for us. 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 s 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. 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 Emperor Leo liveaboard is 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 liveaboard expects you to tip your crew. They make it clear to you to base your tip on your experience. We tipped the recommended $100 each 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 definitely be back here someday – perhaps on another Emperor Maldives boat!
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