Diving into the unknown

Oliver Jarvis, in-house writer for Scuba Diver, was given the opportunity to learn to dive by Scuba Junkie in the incredible waters surrounding Mabul Island, Borneo. In a flurry of dive-related enthusiasm, he documents exactly how learning to dive changed his life.

Ernest Hemingway once famously stated that “all things truly wicked start from innocence”, now, it’s down to you as an individual how you interpret the word wicked; whether it’s something innately evil, or the perfect adjective to label an adrenaline rush. Struggling with buoyancy, 16 metres deep, chewing on a regulator, and with a 13-kilogram tank strapped to my back, I had no idea that my innocently goggled-eyed desire to learn to dive would be the start of a wicked addiction.


It started with an innocent handshake with my Scuba Junkie instructor, Rachel, on the wood-hut-strewn beach of Mabul; an island inhabited by low-key dive resorts, and a village of 2,000 people [over half housed “illegally”]. Before the trip, my editor had filled my mind with images of peachy-island sunsets, smooth crystal waves and below the water, a cosmopolitan collection of marine life that divers dream of and business tycoons would forecast instant resort-profits for – and this was to be my training ground.

© Oliver Jarvis

Learning to dive has always both fascinated and frightened me; there’s the chance to come face-to-face with some of the most incredible creatures on the planet, yet you’re trapped over 10 metres below the surface; there’s the opportunity to see the world from the flipside, yet what if a current sweeps you away into the wide blue beyond? As YouTube videos flicked back and forth, from one-off whale shark encounters to Bondi Beach emergencies, so did the decision in my mind, before I finally got the push to visit Scuba Junkie at Mabul, and take the plunge.

Theory comes first

A full day was spent inside watching a decrepit 70s television burst out the dos and don’ts of open water diving. Whilst real divers geared up on the palm-beach boardwalk under the Malaysian sunrays, I was watching wide-smiled actors putting on face masks and taking orders from topless male instructors who had been sun kissed by a spray can. It’s a strange feeling, anticipation; in life our imagination often outdoes the reality – expectation is life’s biggest killjoy and I was hopeful that my diving experiences would live up to what I pictured in my dry brain.

© Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski

The hour-long multiple-choice exam marked the end of my day spent in the classroom at Scuba Junkie, whose entire resort was an idealistic hideaway from life on the mainland. Somehow they’ve articulated their design to fit, almost naturally, with the surrounding village. Fanned wooden rooms and dorms line the sandy paths that wind through the whole resort, and lead to the common hall, where full-flavoured homemade meals are served up, and an upstairs bar which boasts an unspoilt ambience in which divers can mingle, or just kick up their feet and relax whilst overlooking the waves.

Catching the bug

Rachel was standing on the jetty that stretched out around 30 metres into the sea, with my dive tank, BCD and weight belt ready. At 8:30 AM the sun had already dressed the cloudless sky in cornflower blue, and the Hope Diamond-ocean glistened just as the PADI video had promised. From the jetty you could already make out the faint shadow of coral-life within the boundary of the AWAS dive site; the roped-off ring for beginners and divers taking refresher courses. It was time to put all I had learnt the previous day into the ocean and see what on earth it would throw back at me.


Flash forward, and I’m 16 metres deep with Rachel thrusting the sign for turtle in front of my tempered glass lens. I’m flying, well, wrestling with underwater physics trying to remain neutrally buoyant like the pro-diver had demonstrated in the PADI video. Somewhere out there the turtle is casually observing this ungainly mammal kicking up sand whilst uncontrollably floating higher as if being sucked up by the beam of a hovering saucer. As I go, I’m rapidly looking left, then right, before finally locking eyes on the turtle that’s bigger than a beer barrel. We exchange a look, before the creature arrogantly kicks away and disappears.

 © Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski

And that’s it. I’ve caught the lifestyle-changing pseudo-sickness that divers like to call, “the bug”. And here’s why:

Breathing underwater and the sensation of flying

Diving lived up to my high expectations. I’d been repeatedly told how breathing underwater took your breath away [if you’ll pardon the pun], but the moment my face dipped below the surface and the metallic sound of my breathing through the regulator became a meditative noise, I felt a deep sense of relaxation and jubilation as I slowly sunk deeper. Divers live for the moment the chaotic topside world becomes drowned out by a blanket of water and the sound of deep-breaths. It’s the moment when they cut-ties with stress at work, missed phone calls and Internet bills, trading it all for 45 minutes alone with this unsurpassed nirvana. Drifting over the various coral hamlets and seeing a fully-functioning pressurised world on the floor below was similar to peering out the window of the Airbus 320 when landing on the Tawau airstrip, but more extraordinary.

Importance of teamwork

From the rule of diving with a buddy to seeing schools of fish operating in numbers, diving taught me how important sticking together was; for safety, efficiency and of course, enjoyment. My girlfriend and I took the course together, and side-by-side we helped each other through learning the skills, and even developed a fluent sign-language system. Being able to share the feeling of being underwater with someone when reconvening on the top-side was key to our enjoyment, and filling out our log books with the marine life we’d seen only fuelled our desire to be back down there.

© Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski

It opens up a world of opportunity

We were only circling the AWAS dive site, but already you could see ocean life dancing below our fins, and I had a burning desire to go down deeper and come eye-to-eye with these fascinating creatures. It was then I realised that my future holidays would no longer be just a temple tour, or stumbling around a bustling city centre. With diving you get to see popular destinations from a brand new perspective beyond the Expedia discount-holiday packages – you long to explore the best of the topside and the seabed.

New friends come into your life at dive resort buffet halls or on-deck on liveaboards, often recommending new dive destinations over a chilled lager on the beach. Most of all, you realise that there is a whole new world ready to be explored; drifting through the coral-covered sea beds, ducking under cave walls or floating on the fins of nature’s giants – with diving you’re let in on some of the world’s best kept secrets.

You become aware of what the ocean really is

You realise that the ocean is more than just a lifeless blue sheet that oil tankers scrape over from country to country and fishermen magically pull thousands of fish out of, you see the frail petal of beauty that we are so close to destroying. The colours of fish and coral that are fading with climate change, or the empty haze of open water where nets have plucked schools of marine life from, or worse – see the underwater habitats that have been blown to pieces by dynamite.

You meet people who are actively passionate about changing the world’s view on the oceans, who give up their lives to protect marine species – and you begin to want to help. My last dive was on the sloping coral shelf of Eel Garden; a slightly unnerving dive site that seems to tumble down into a dark abyss. The site is a divine Ithaca for skilled divers in search of shy colourful gobies of various species, eels and types of shrimp – to my eyes, untrained in macro hunting, the elusive critters were difficult to spot and the thought of it being empty of life gave me an eerie preview of what our oceans could become if we continued to strip it of its vibrant life.

© Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski

Understanding the beauty of patience

I remember looking at the roughed up log book of a diver wanting to make it as a Divemaster, through water damaged pages with some parts torn and scraped by pens low on ink, and seeing her determination in slowly compiling a history of her diving experiences. There must have been over 3,000 species of fish hooked to the lines of her pages, all but the whale shark. It was her dream to swim with one, and she was adamant to keep going, dive by dive, to achieve this dream.

It was the beauty of patience that diving taught me, from taking your time to ascend and descend, to waiting to come eye-to-eye with nature’s rarest, there was this inherent belief that if you tried for long enough, then one day they’d simply swim across your view.

We make temporary lifestyle changes weekly; dieting to cut belly fat, not calling your ex after too many tequilas or deciding to take up learning a new language – but with diving it was an irreversible lifestyle change that wrote my fate in the phytoplanktonic stars. It was wicked.

Thank you Scuba Junkie for the experience and Bertie being there to document it.