“Just don’t smile,” Che advised me. Suddenly everything made sense, I wasn’t experiencing hell in paradise. I didn’t realise that a natural reaction to discovering the wonders of the submarine world was the root of all my problems. After all, I had only learned to swim properly and overcome my fear of deep water three months earlier!

I had been advised to learn how to scuba dive by my friend’s husband when I mentioned I was heading to Borneo. I signed up for a course with Scuba Junkies, who were based out of Semporna, a tiny village on the south of the Malaysian side of the island. They had just opened a hostel opposite their shop, with a bar that served pizzas to the guests, all of which were on a pilgrimage to explore one of the dive world’s meccas. Sipadan is a coral reef island, formed on top of an extinct volcano and is teeming with marine life. There were some serious professionals around, including Scandinavian ice divers and specialist deep-sea macro photographers. In comparison, I was out of my depth.

Aquamarine clear waters, palm trees

Day Two of my practical course for my PADI Open Water diving certificate had not got off to a great start. The whole one hour journey out to the dive sites was awful and that wasn’t due to the sea conditions. The previous day’s final dive had ended with me coughing and spluttering, I wasn’t able to breathe whilst submerged in a tropical lagoon. The fear of drowning meant I found it difficult to keep my head below water and I began to hate the experience. Afterwards, most of the discussion over dinner had been about diving disasters, featuring deaths and disappearances, which for a learner was very distressing. I was so miserable.


The next day I scowled as I dejectedly sat on the pier steps and sadly confessed that I couldn’t do it, overcome with pure dread. I just wasn’t cut out for the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus existence. I was so close to quitting there and then. However, Che, my instructor, knew exactly what to do. He took me on a super shallow breathing only dive. Just focusing on relaxing under the surface was exactly what I needed to get my confidence back. Then when we were sat at lunchtime and was given the golden goose: keep my lips pursed around the regulator, in the same manner as the narrow-mouthed frog joke.

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colourful sea caterpillar known as a nudibranch

Sipadan and the surrounding islands lived up to their infamous reputation. The number of underwater critters I encountered was unreal. Guaranteed turtle sightings, black-tipped sharks, funny-faced frogfish, well hidden flying gurnards, technicolour parrot fish, alienesque nudibranchs, banded sea snakes and giant swarms of barracuda. It was like being a kid in an aquatic candy shop.

Despite all of these wonders, I learned about the most terrifying sea creature of all: the fiercely territorial triggerfish. These bad boys love to protect their nests, which is admiral parenting, but they perform this job armed with teeth that chomp through coral and a poisonous bite. This can get nasty, as some unsuspecting diver swims over their breeding ground and suddenly they are under a vicious attack, ramming and nipping to drive the diver away. After receiving this info, sharks seemed pretty tame in comparison!

diver looking up at a swirl of fish

The location of the lessons was pretty spectacular, from resorts straight out of honeymooner’s heaven with bungalows on wooden stilts over the most brilliant clear blue waters to underneath an old oil rig that is now a diver’s hotel. Each boat crossing was also tinged with excitement and danger, there were ‘pirates’ in the area, criminals who have kidnapped tourists and attacked resorts before. There was plenty to be aware of above as well as below the water.

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Locals fishing from their boat

Under the expert guidance of my instructor and using the amphibian mouth technique, I eventually passed all my dive tests and became an official Open Water Scuba Diver! Thankfully I didn’t have to suffer any consequences, unlike the newly qualified divemaster who then had to down all manner of alcohol through a snorkel. I even began to feel part of the crazy underwater crew, although I’m not sure whether I would ever spontaneously jump overboard with just a reg and a tank to see a special nudi or play with banded sea snakes over an hour from a pretty poor hospital. But I did feel welcomed into a new club and as a result went on to dive in many other top locations around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, the Great White Wall in Fiji and the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand.

Practising narrow mouthed underwater breathing

Subsequently, other dive buddies wondered why I learned to dive in one of the best locations in the world after all everywhere else would be rubbish in comparison. It wasn’t true, but I knew the reason why. I couldn’t have achieved this without Che. Even though he declared that I was his most ‘difficult’ student, I was also his biggest accomplishment. He was the last person to wave me off and hugged me goodbye as I left Semporna during a power cut. It’s those kinds of experiences, overcoming fears, making lifelong friends, discovering a whole new watery world, that travelling is all about. It changed my life massively, how has it changed yours? Let me know in the comments!

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If you need travel advice, request a free 30 minute coaching session. In the chat, Annie will help you choose a destination, create your itinerary and review safety precautions. Or she can discuss how you can incorporate more travel into your life by saving, making money, travelling for free or being paid to travel.