When a dream dive trip turns into a nightmare


Photo courtesy of True Nomads

Two weeks ago, I signed up for a two day live aboard to get my Advanced Open Water with Scuba Nation in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. When I first signed up I imagined writing about what an amazing experience it was once it was over, but it ended up being the worst two days of my life. I thought about not writing anything, but I love diving and I’m not going to let this put me off so hopefully by writing about my terrible experience it will help others to not go through the same thing and have the moment I had; questioning whether I ever wanted to dive again.

I started the trip as a confident diver, I knew my limits and was comfortable that I could handle myself in an emergency situation should one arise; I walked away with no confidence, no idea what and where my limits actually sat and doubting my ability to handle myself should trouble present during a dive. At first I thought it was me, it’s what the instructors kept telling me, but a friend reminded me that there is no such thing as a bad student, just a bad teacher and he was right. If I walked away less confident, unable to finish my course, then that was a failing on my instructors’ behalf, not mine. I kept forcing myself to try right up until the last dive which I didn’t do because I’d lost faith in my instructors and myself. It was time to call in quits on this trip, cut my losses, and try again somewhere else.

So what exactly was the problem? Right from the beginning I was put off and it just didn’t improve. Everyone else on the boat was French (this isn’t usually the case, I was just unlucky) and while this didn’t bother me at first, all the briefings were done in French and then I would get a quick, much less detailed, briefing in English. The first dive of my course was Peak Performance Buoyancy and when running through what I needed to do I tried to ask questions for clarity and was told we had lots of dives to do and that there wasn’t time for questions. This put me off instantly. I’d paid good money to learn and wasn’t allowed to ask questions!? And this was the way the rest of the dives would go; constantly rushed because the instructors had stretched themselves too thin. More than likely purely to get more money.

I’d hoped things would get better once we were in the water, but they didn’t. I’d been fitted with a child’s mask in Phnom Penh (where I had signed up for the course) and when I put on the mask I’d been provided in Sihanoukville I knew instantly it was too small for my face, even before I got in the water, but I was told I needed to dive with it anyway. I barely made it down to 1 metre before I was in agony from the pressure pushing on my too small mask. I tried to equalize but it didn’t help; the mask was just the wrong size for my face. After surfacing, my instructor went down with my mask while myself, the open water student and the fun diver also on the dive waited at the surface. When he came back up he announced that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the mask and handed it back to me. He did half-heartedly offer me his mask but as he insisted the mask was fine (indicating I was the problem) I attempted to dive with it again after loosening the straps further, but had the exact same issue. By this point, I was stressed, had a migraine and didn’t even really want to complete the dive, but my instructor finally signalled the boat and got me a spare, and I’d come all this way to get my advanced certification so I was determined.

Dive two started out ok, but my mask was leaking like a sieve and for some reason I couldn’t clear it properly. I’m still not sure why I couldn’t clear the mask (I have a stupid shaped face and spend a large portion of all my dives clearing water out of leaky masks) but not once did my instructor offer any assistance other than to tell me I was obviously doing it wrong. Finally he asked me to show him how I clear a mask and then said something along the lines of “well that should work” and then shrugged and walked away. And that was a little more of my confidence gone. Maybe I didn’t know how to dive after all…

When it came time for dive three, a night dive, I didn’t even want to get in the water, but this dive would put me over the half way point to getting my AOW. This trip had long since passed from fun to simply a means to an end; to get certified so I could dive elsewhere. It had become something to endure and given the amount of money I’d spent on it, endure I would! However, with my confidence shattered, when my mask completely flooded towards the end of the dive I panicked and found myself shooting to the surface when I started breathing way too heavily due to my panic. I knew I needed to slow my breathing and didn’t mean to surface but I just couldn’t control my breathing. I’d known it was going to happen and tried to tell my instructor there was a problem with my mask but he didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him and did nothing to stop me from surfacing despite me being right next to him when it happened. And that was the last little shred of my confidence gone.

Day Two: my deep dive and my wreck dive; it was nearly over and I could do this. Except when it came time to get in the water I was shaking like a leaf and felt like I was going to throw up. I didn’t want to dive anymore. I was afraid that my mask would flood at 30m, and I would panic and that my instructors (I had two on this dive for some unknown reason – they both had different stories as to why there was two of them) wouldn’t stop me from shooting to the surface if I did panic. We’d only been at 5m when I shot to the surface during my night dive, but doing so from a deep dive could cause serious problems. Again I was told there were lots of dives that needed to be done and that we needed to get my deep dive over and done with as soon as possible. We had agreed that I would flood my mask at 3m and clear it before going deeper to prove to myself and my instructors that I would be ok during the dive, but when we got in the water my instructor insisted that I put my head in the water without a mask at the surface. When I said I didn’t like doing it at the surface and could we just do it at 3m like we had discussed, he snapped at me and said either do it or we don’t dive, so I did. It made me even more stressed than I already was but I did it. I’d tried to explain to him that my brain doesn’t work like most peoples and that if I know all I have to do is lift my head and it will be over, forcing myself to hold my head under stresses me out, but if I’m a few metres down, I know there is no other choice and I’m fine, but he didn’t care. So when he told me that I had to do it a second time before he would let me do the dive I burst into tears and told him fine, we won’t complete the dive. At this point he was suddenly the instructor that I had needed from the beginning. He told me to take my time, and that it was fine if we did it at 3m but it was too late. I had zero confidence in myself, my instructors or the equipment I was using. I attempted the dive anyway but only made it to 16m before asking to go back up again, and the safety stop was the longest three minutes of my life. I was shaking uncontrollably and it felt like it was never going to end. I was terrified and just wanted to get to the surface; a feeling I’d never experienced before while diving.

With all hope of completing my advanced certification gone with the failed deep dive, I didn’t even complete my final dive; the thought of diving again making me feel sick. I wasn’t sure I would ever dive again after this experience and the trip back to shore couldn’t come soon enough. Once safely back in Sihanoukville, I went to speak to the manager, expecting some form of apology for what had happened and hoping for a partial refund given I didn’t even complete all my dives but he was even worse. He called me a liar, told me none of what I said had happened and refused to refund any of my money. For two hours I tried to have a civilised conversation with him about what had happened but he refused to acknowledge a single thing that had happened on my dive and would often just sit there and not respond at all, probably trying to drag out the time in the hopes I would leave. After two hours I finally did, even more upset than when I’d first gotten off the boat, but this company had already taken enough of my time and I wasn’t going to let them take any more.

Initially I felt like I was done with diving, that maybe it just wasn’t for me, but then I thought about the amazing dives I had done previously and how much I had loved diving before I made the mistake of diving in Cambodia. My Instagram and twitter feed also suddenly seemed to be full of amazing diving videos and I knew I had to give it another go. Scuba Nation had taken my money and my confidence, but they weren’t going to take diving from me as well. So I headed to Thailand and found a great company to help me get my confidence back and finish my course. Yesterday I completed two fun dives which went really well and tomorrow I finish my advanced course. Stay tuned to find out how it goes!

Read the happy ending to my experience here


4 responses to “When a dream dive trip turns into a nightmare

  1. On what a horrible experience! Diving is something that needs patient and understanding instructors. I was a terrified diver to begin with but I had great instructors on my AOW and that really helped. Really glad you were able to get to Thailand and try again in a much nicer environment!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so sorry you had such a terrible experience but please, please believe me not all dive shops in Cambodia are the same. I am the manager of a center on Koh Rong and it would never have happened here. All the instructors are very experienced and patient and will speak in your language, giving you thorough briefings and explanations.
    Happy that you went on, tried and succeeded in the end.

    Happy diving

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, I saw you guys while I was there. If only I’d chosen to dive with you instead! I picked Scuba Nation purely because they had the live aboard which I thought we be fun. If I’m ever back in Cambodia I’ll have to come and do some dives with you 😊


  3. Pingback: Getting my mojo back in Thailand… Diving that is… | little wander girl·

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