I have done my fair share of volunteering on boats over the years. I can be a pretty frugal person, so when opportunities arise to scuba dive without spending money I jump on them.
As a backpacker it’s a great way to get on a trip, you’re saving money that you can put towards your travels, but you do need to work for your spot on the boat.
I’ll start with my first experience volunteering on the Great Barrier Reef. I was 24 years old when I first came to Australia.
I had been backpacking in Asia for 4 months prior. In Asia I wasn’t being very frugal because it was pretty cheap to travel there.
But Australia is expensive. As a 24 year old backpacker I really needed to be smart with my money if I wanted to spend the month in Australia.
My #1 bucket list activity was to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. I knew I could volunteer on boats so I could dive for free. I just needed to find the right boat.
I had done some research before arriving in Australia and found that Divers Den offered volunteers to come out with them in exchange for free diving.
When I landed in Cairns I got on a shuttle bus and asked the driver to take me to the Divers Den office.
I don’t know what I was thinking bringing all my luggage with me. But I arrived at their office with 3 bags of luggage I had been dragging around for the past 4 months.
I walked in the door and they’re all looking at me like I was crazy. They must have thought I was lost!
I sat down with a reservations agent and explained to them that I had just arrived and I wanted to volunteer on their live aboard.
She then proceeds to ask me if I made a reservation. I had a blank stare on my face, I didn’t know I needed to reserve a spot in advance!
I thought I could just show up and they would put me on the boat right away. That was lesson one learned.
Make Sure You Have A Booking
Volunteering on a liveaboard is very popular and you need to book in advance! They told me the next available spot would be in 2 months. I was planning on being in New Zealand by then.
Unfortunately I had to turn them down and find another boat to volunteer with.
So there I was in the outskirts of Cairns City with all my luggage and no transportation, no accommodation and no internet.
I needed to get to McDonalds for some free wifi. Carrying all my luggage in the middle of February was not ideal.
Man it was so hot! But I was stubborn and cheap and refused to call an Uber. I managed to walk the 5 minutes to McDonalds in Parramatta Park.
From there I booked a hostel eager to get rid of my luggage! The walk from Macca’s to Gilligan’s took me about 20 minutes in the heat with all my bags.
I was miserable and hated my life. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think that you needed to book in advance to volunteer!
I was pretty worried I wasn’t going to find any other boat that could take me as a volunteer on such short notice.
But the good thing about Cairns is it’s fairly small and everyone seems to know each other. I met a travel agent who told me about Reef Encounter.
I went down to the marina to talk to the crew on the boat once they had gotten back for the day. That was a waste of time though because they just told me to go to their office.
Luckily, I got to the office before they closed and talked about volunteering. With Reef Encounter their volunteer program required you to book on as a customer first and then you could volunteer for as long as you wanted.
Now this was back in 2016 so things may be different now. But I believe I did the 4 day 3 night liveaboard volunteer program.
I had to pay for the 2 day 1 night package which included 6 certified dives. Did I want to pay? No not really, but I had no choice at this point.
However it was nice to be treated as a guest. After backpacking for 4 months it just felt so good to not have to worry about where I was going to sleep and what I would eat for the next few days.
My time as a guest was wonderful. I was finally seeing the Great Barrier Reef for the first time and it was magical! We visited Norman, Saxon and Hastings Reef.
We had perfect weather, the water looked like glass and the visibility was 30 meters! The reef was everything that I had imagined and more.
My time as a guest quickly ended though and on the second day I officially became a volunteer. They handed me my volunteer shirt and my duties began!
As a volunteer you are expected to help the crew with various tasks. One of the easiest was helping the crew set the tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One of the worst was cleaning the cabins. It was hard work! We had to make the beds for every single customer, every day.
If new people were arriving we needed to make sure their cabin was ready. So that meant cleaning the bathrooms, scrubbing the toilets, wiping down sinks and taking out the rubbish.
Changing the sheets on the bed was also hard work in a small cabin. The beds are in bunks and one side is right up against the wall. So you can imagine how difficult it can be to put fresh sheets on the bed.
You literally need to get on top of that bed and put the sheets on. But make sure you don’t leave any footprints or dirty the sheets while you’re at it!
Once the beds and bathroom were done you’d vacuum the room, put fresh towels on the beds and that room is finished!
The communal areas also needed to be cleaned. After meals we would clear everyone’s plates and wipe down the tables. I would then vacuum the carpet inside.
If the chef needed our help we would go into the kitchen and help them with whatever they needed. That could be peeling, chopping, cleaning dishes, whatever was needed we would get it done.
Our volunteer duties would go throughout the day. As a volunteer we were rewarded with a minimum of 2 dives per day. But we would normally get about 3 dives in.
Obviously each trip is different but the majority of the time the crew just wants you to enjoy your time on the boat and get you in the water. They want you to have a fun time!
The good thing about being a volunteer is all your equipment is included. So no need to pay extra for anything!
Overall I had a great time volunteering. The crew were fun and they let me dive as much as possible.
Was it hard work at times? Definitely. But I saw it as a way to get what I wanted out of them.
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions
My next experience volunteering was for Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Now Mike Ball’s volunteer program was highly sought after. If you wanted to volunteer on a specific date, you had to apply 3 months in advance!
The reason Mike Ball’s volunteer program was so popular is because they visit the Ribbons & Osprey Reef. Very few boats travel that far north.
In fact the distance from Cairns to Osprey Reef is 346 kilometers! Only 2 liveaboards go that far north from Cairns. One is Mike Ball, the other is Spirit of Freedom.
However Mike Ball was the only company that offered a volunteer program. Which is why it was so sought after.
I was lucky to volunteer with Mike Ball twice. Once in 2019 and once in 2020. Mike Ball had 2 volunteers for each trip. One was a dive volunteer and the other was a galley volunteer.
Basically what that means is the dive volunteer would help the dive team and the galley volunteer helped the chef and hosts in the galley.
In 2019 I was the dive deck volunteer. To be qualified for this position you needed to be a minimum rescue diver. The main responsibilities were to help the dive team.
So that meant drying the towels for the divers after they had been used. Cutting oranges for the divers in between dives. If a guest didn’t have a dive buddy then I would be their buddy for the dive.
I was also on watch, so I would stand at the top deck and watch the divers. If a diver popped up and needed help it would be my job to alert the team below with my radio.
I remember one time being on watch for a night dive and I was so nervous because I had never done this before. Being on watch is actually a lot of responsibility. If anything were to go wrong on the dive I would need to alert the team.
It’s kind of strange how they put a volunteer with no previous lookout experience in that position. I was used to the skipper and the supervisor being on watch because that’s how it was done on the boat I worked for. Yes I was fine and luckily nothing went wrong.
But when you think about it, they would get volunteers from all over the world with very different backgrounds. How can you be sure that the volunteer will be okay in the position without any training?
Everything was fine though and the volunteer program was a great way to get experience if you were interested in a job on a boat or looking to further your skills. I did have some pretty epic dives and took some great photos for my portfolio.
We had perfect weather on the trip and I finally got to visit the famous Osprey Reef and the Ribbon Reefs. Since the weather was so good it also allowed us to go to Holmes and Bougainville Reefs. Those are 2 reefs that you need good weather to get to and Mike Ball didn’t go there that often.
Amongst all the dive deck volunteering I helped with the dishes and the vacuuming as well. It was definitely a long trip. 7 days volunteering with different guests in between was tough.
By the end of the week I was so exhausted. I think the worst part about volunteering was the cleanup on the last day. There was just so much to clean in a few hours. Granted you have all the crew cleaning but it’s still hard work.
We had to strip the beds, put new sheets on, clean the air filters in the air conditioners, empty the rubbish bins, clean the bathrooms, vacuum, wipe down everything and make sure that the boat was ready for the new crew and guests coming on in the afternoon.
Was all that work worth not getting paid for? Yes and no. But I knew I never wanted to work on a liveaboard after that!
My second time volunteering with Mike Ball was during COVID in 2020. It was totally different. Granted I was the galley volunteer this time around. But it was so much easier.
With all the COID rules in place we were actually limited to what we were allowed to do. For example we couldn’t go into guest rooms. So there was no making beds during the trip.
The only time I needed to clean the rooms was when the guests were leaving. My main duties on that trip were in the galley helping the chef.
We had a great time just chatting away. I was cutting fruit and making fruit boards, washing dishes, peeling veggies, sweeping the floor, pretty easy stuff. A lot of the time I finished my work early and was able to go for a dive.
I definitely got in more dives on this trip as the galley volunteer than I did last time as the dive deck volunteer. On this trip I did 3-4 dives a day.
The best part about Mike Ball is that they allow solo diving. Since I was a certified solo diver I could take the pony bottle and go for a dive by myself. If I finished my work early they just let me go and I could have an epic dive by myself!
One of the best dives that I remember was diving alone on this epic deep wall, it was so surreal being there by myself! I really felt like the smallest organism in the world compared to the vast ocean.
Not only was I alone but I was alone on the dive for 60 minutes! On Mike Ball you can dive with Nitrox so you have a longer bottom time and can dive for a longer period of time.
I absolutely loved my time on that trip. Even though the weather wasn’t great and we couldn’t get to Osprey Reef it was just good vibes and I was surrounded by amazing people.
The trip was shorter than they used to be so I wasn’t as exhausted and I got some great photos again. I even won the photo competition on the trip!
Does it suck to work and not get paid though? For sure! On that first trip I did I thought man this is a lot of work to not be getting paid. The second trip I wasn’t too fussed because I wasn’t pushed to work as much.
I guess there are a lot of different factors you have to weigh if you are thinking about volunteering. What do you want to get out of the trip and do you think it’s worth it?
Unfortunately Mike Ball does not accept volunteers anymore. But I did hear they have finally raised their wages for the crew which was much needed.
Working on a liveaboard is tough work, you are working for 10 hours at least. Sometimes it’s more like 12 hours. But if you love it out on the ocean and you don’t mind working those hours, volunteering can be a great way to get to the reef.
Would I volunteer again? Depends on the situation, but I think with the experience I now have and the skills I’ve gained from working on boats all these years, I wouldn’t. Just because I know what I’m worth and if I’m putting 100% of my effort into the job I deserve to be paid.
Thanks for reading and comment below if you’ve ever volunteered on a liveaboard!