Believe it or not, I was never a big fan of the ocean. As much as I enjoyed relaxing on the beach, I would only go into the water if the heat became unbearable. And there was NO way I’d go any further than where my feet could still touch the ground.
So when I was backpacking through Southeast Asia in 2014 I spent most of my time next to the ocean instead of in it. Even though I met tons of people who were into scuba diving, no one could convince me to take the plunge myself. To me, the ocean was just one big scary mystery that I had no intention of exploring. Convinced that I was suffering from thalassophobia (aka ‘fear of the sea’), I was more than happy to enjoy the ocean from a beach chair.
Pirates and scuba fanatics
That is, until I found myself on the tiny island of Mabul, east of Borneo. Mabul island is the main gateway to the world-famous and protected dive site Sipadan. Only 120 divers are allowed daily, and there are actually waiting lists for it, as it is consistently ranked as one of the best dive sites on earth. Not that this mattered to me – I only ended up there because it was on my friends bucket list. My only plan was to chill out on the beach with a cocktail in my hand while she would do some scuba diving. Great preparation from my side, because not only was the area notorious for tourist kidnappings by Filipino pirates (yeah, really) but there was literally NOTHING else to do but scuba diving. No nice beaches, only dive resorts. If you’ve ever been to a dive resort as a non diver, especially in a super remote and exclusive area (meaning that only the real fanatics go through the trouble of going there), you know that the only thing people talk about is well… diving. And they go to bed early. So yeah… probably not the best place to stay at for someone who hardly knew what a snorkel was.
A new Navy SEAL is born
Long story short, the dive resort had some great sales people that talked me into doing an open water course. I felt like a Navy SEAL doing backflips from boats and removing my bcd and regulator 5 meter under water. The reality was probably a bit less heroic, since my instructor had to pull me back down from my fins at least 10 times when I panicked and tried to escape back to the surface. But he got me through it and I miraculously became a certified PADI Open Water diver.
Girl meets whale shark
Even though it wasn’t as bad as I expected, it sure as hell wasn’t love at first sight. The idea of diving never even crossed my mind again, until I found myself in Thailand a few months later. Some people I met convinced me to join them on a scuba trip, and even though I certainly wasn’t as excited as the rest, I’d show them my Navy SEAL magic. Turned out that without my instructor next to me, I wasn’t such a ‘hero’ after all. The first dive was still scary. And so was the second, and probably the third. But for some mysterious reason I persisted, and then something amazing happened. On a dive near scuba paradise Koh Tao in Thailand a whale shark approached our group. It came close enough for me to touch it (which I didn’t) and stayed with us for what seemed like an eternity, even though it was still too short. It was exhilarating, scary but most of all AWESOME. You have no idea how small you are until you find yourself next to a whale shark. It was life changing. I don’t mean that in a cathartic, born-again way, but looking back that encounter really did change the way I’d be spending my time and money from then on. Scuba diving became a prerequisite for every holiday. I started spending my money on scuba gear instead of new clothes and parties. And I quit my job to become a Divemaster.
Join the club
If one of these annoying scuba fanatics at the Mabul dive resort would have told me that one day, I’d not only be one of them, but I’d actually become a dive professional, I would have thought that their tanks were probably filled with an hallucinating substance. But I can’t deny it: I am one of them now. And I’m probably just as annoying for non-divers.
So that’s my story. I invite everyone to come visit me and give scuba diving a try, even if it seems scary. Especially if it seems scary! Even if you travel all the time, you only experience a tiny part of our planet if you don’t get under the surface.