Learning to SCUBA dive in Borneo: Completing our PADI course in the most stunning and unexpected place!

When we set off backpacking around South East Asia, doing a PADI course to become qualified open water SCUBA divers was one of the first things we added to our list of things to do! After doing a taster session over 10 years ago on a family holiday to Turkey and also having friends who raved about it, it seemed like the perfect way to begin to explore our underwater world further. Everyone and I mean everyone does it in Thailand, it’s reportedly the cheapest and unofficially one of the most lax. In all honesty some of the tales of being herded like cattle, close calls and just passing anyone made us put it off long enough to think we might just not do it. However after arriving in the stunning Kota Kinabalu and having a few days spare whilst waiting for our slot to climb the mountain we saw so many posters and images of the stunning islands and their diving potential for our interest to be reignited. In the end we found a personal, safe, beautiful and also unique place to learn to dive with a professional and fun company in Borneo Dream. SCUBA diving in Borneo and doing our scuba diving course Malaysia was for us a travelling highlight!

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The desire to learn to dive

10 years ago in a shallow area of the mediterranean we tried SCUBA for the first time, on a family holiday I was only 18 and didn’t really know what all the fuss was about. Looking back with the hindsight of now being PADI open water qualified I can see that this was a haphazard and not particularly well run tour, taking us down to 10m for example with the only information being how to equalise our ears???

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However despite the obvious failings of that particular tour it did open our eyes to the beautiful world hiding below the waves, a colourful and alien landscape that many of us have never really had the chance to explore with such freedom as SCUBA provides. Swimming inside a flash of new colours, shapes and mind blowing sights was something we longed for once again, to be able to do it ourselves and begin to take our desire to see and explore our world as we do on land and take that under water! It was time for our next big adventure, but it would prove to be more than we anticipated as we set off SCUBA diving in Borneo!

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Why do a PADI in Borneo?

Why not!! Everyone who does a PADI does one in Thailand and as a result the quality has dropped. Over in Thailand a PADI might be marginally cheaper but you get what you pay for and SCUBA diving might be a fun sport to get involved with but it is also a serious and hazardous adventure activity. For us we don’t want our instructor to tick boxes and tip us off the boat 50 at a time like cattle!! We actually wanted to learn and to be allowed the time, space and direction in order to do that and do it properly SCUBA diving in Borneo fit the bill for us!

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SCUBA diving in Borneo is a scene of professional divers who take their jobs seriously when it comes to teaching and keeping their students and customers safe whilst also having good fun. Here with Borneo Dream you have small groups, we had an instructor between 4 of us, meaning we each had enough one on one time for him to be able to really assess how we were doing as well as speaking to us individually about our questions and concerns.

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Not only that, but unless you hadn’t realised, Borneo is stunning! It’s not just jungles, monkeys and creepy crawlies out here. But just as this immense area of untamed land teeming with unique life is what we came to explore, it follows that the warm seas that surround this island hold just as much and if not more potential.

The turquoise waters off the mesmerisingly perfect islands just a short boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu in the Tunku Abdul Rahman national park are the perfect setting for SCUBA diving in Borneo. A protected area of diverse coral and sea life they form part of the Coral Triangle, and are recognised as some of the most important marine sites on Earth. The area also provides both the confined water and open water needed to gain confidence and progress as well as some amazing beaches to relax after a day of diving!

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Besides, doesn’t it make you sound more interesting to be the only one on the boat who bucked the trend and did their PADI course in Malaysia and went SCUBA diving in Borneo!

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How much theory is involved in a PADI?

The short answer is a lot less than it looks at first! For some reason I had never really considered the theory to doing a PADI course and just thought it involved doing a few dives and off you go! The good and bad news is that you have to do a bit of studying in order to gain your qualification. I say good and bad because firstly, I am sure any of us considered we might be back sitting exams whilst backpacking around Asia (ok, it’s not that formal but I’m trying to be dramatic!) but if you consider the fact that this isn’t just about ticking it off the bucket list, but about actually becoming a competent diver who have to keep themselves and their diving partners safe. Now that is the most important part for me!

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However, that being said, on your first day you will be presented with a hefty looking book to work through and you’ll wonder when you can actually start SCUBA diving in Borneo! But once you begin actually dissecting each section you will realise that it really isn’t hard to take in or to pass. We watched a video for the first day which really made it so much quicker, on the others we did our exams whilst eating lunch, plus, once you get into the water most of it makes much more sense!

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Day by day progressions that took us from panicked to confident 

The first day in the water loomed, we were chatting away on the dock and I will be honest with you I was a little nervous as well as being excited. After reading through our theory we had all realised there is so much more to SCUBA than we had ever anticipated; decompression sickness, setting up equipment wrong, running out of air. It all seemed a bit more scary than the images of backpackers frolicking underwater had conjured up.

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But here we where, kitting up and getting into our wetsuits and the heavy and claustrophobic BCD that seemed to entirely surround us. Non of us felt comfortable and on diving to the grand depth of 1.5 metres we each had a panic and sprang to the surface gasping for air. I can’t breath, my mask is filling up, I feel like I’m in a straight jacket… this isn’t for me! These were all shouted in frustration in just the first morning, we all honestly considered just packing it in and sticking to the snorkel set rather than SCUBA diving in Borneo!

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But thankfully our instructor Amir is well used to the shock factor of not just SCUBA diving for the first time but also the idea of performing tasks which seem pretty scary whilst in a situation completely out of your comfort zone! Over the next few days we all went through a complete transformation, that first day, grasping at the regulator and fighting the urge to hold our breath as we frantically searched for it felt a long way away. As the 3 full days SCUBA diving in Borneo went on our feelings of confidence and comfort rose to levels we could never have imagined. Taking our masks off 15m below, simulating out of air situations with composure and learning to control our buoyancy was a liberating feeling. Upon reaching our target depth of 18m we were all in amazement of how calm we all were and how natural it felt!

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At Borneo dream they really do structure the course to allow you to progress in well planned stages that allow you to enjoy the process rather than find it stressful, by the end we ventured out for our last dive of the course, freshly qualified to just explore the ocean and enjoy SCUBA diving in Borneo, it was a monumental moment of achievement for all four of us!

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What exactly is involved in a PADI?

Ok, so what do you really do on a PADI course. Well in truth there are quite a lot of “tasks” to complete and prove you can do competently in order to pass. This usually takes the form of them being explained above water, performed by your instructor in confined water (shallow and near the beach) before you have to repeat them both in confined and then open water. These are broken down into each stage and each dive and explained in full before and whilst in the water meaning that it’s not all that overwhelming or challenging in reality. You are given ample time to try again and your instructor is always there to make sure everything is safe.

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These mostly range from removing your regulator underwater and replacing it, simulating out of air situations where you then share air with your buddy or make an emergency ascent. Removal of mask and replacing it underwater, removing your gear and weight belt and putting it all back on. Safety descending and ascending, learning general safety and communication and of course setting up and changing your gear before and after a dive. There is also a navigation section as well as learning how to control your buoyancy more effectively and of course just getting used to breathing properly underwater! Non of it is overly difficult or scary, especially with the structure of the course building up slowly. For me the worst part was removing my mask as I always had the urge to breath through my nose!!

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Feeling safe in the hands of Borneo Dream

Owned by a British couple and managed by one of the UK’s most experienced and accomplished divers you know you are in good and reliable hands here. The company was set up to provide a 5* service that prides itself on giving the customer a quality experience, high safety standards and of course fun, making sure that their absolute passion for SCUBA diving in Borneo is infectious! They have two specially built boats to provide for different experiences, from various levels of PADI qualifications to simple fun dives or recreational diving for those already qualified. You are guaranteed a great atmosphere on board these state of the art boats as everyone gears up for a great day in the water.

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For me the main concern when embarking on what is a sport with many elements of danger is safety. Many people tell us climbing is dangerous, and it is, but if you do everything right then it really isn’t as risky as you might imagine. This was a huge factor in choosing this location and also Borneo Dream. They don’t cut corners, they offer small groups and the most up to date equipment and years of experience. They also know the area well, where to dive and where not too. Any concerns you might have about the safety of this region are a non issue and instead you can get on with enjoying SCUBA diving in Borneo!

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Check out Borneo Dream and read more about them here:

www.borneodream.com

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Find them at G27 in Wisma Sabah in the heart of KK!

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Have you ever done a PADI course or gone SCUBA diving in Borneo?

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Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Borneo Dream. As always, all opinions are our own!

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • Miranda Knudtson

    I’ve always wanted to scuba dive so this post was super informative for me! I liked that you broke down what all is involved in the course–I’ve had general ideas, but knowing me I’d wing it and might get nervous in the process haha. I agree with you, your choice of Borneo instead of Thailand sounds more ideal. I’d rather get more time to myself and not have to worry about bumping into anyone else!

    • Thanks, I was nervous too to be honest going in and wish I knew a little more but the company really helped explain it all to us. It was such a wonderful place too.

  • Congrats! That’s so awesome, and what a beautiful place to learn in and explore.

  • Mink Borwornsenee

    Oh my god I was just thinking of getting a course or something so I can scuba dive as I’ve been so in long with the underwater world! This is exactly the info I’ve been looking for!

  • Corinne Vail

    I think this is such a good idea, combine a trip with learning to scuba. I’m a bit too chicken to do it, but I keep trying to get my husband to go. He’d love it.

    • Yeah, doing it in such a wonderful location and being able to see such amazing things as you learn makes it so much more fun… plus at home the water would be too cold!! ha ha.

  • Clare

    I have been to so many places where the PADI is taught but I still haven’t had a go. I am not great in the water and have panic attacks just snorkelling, though I am getting less afraid everytime. Maybe one day I will have a go, I will never say never and some places look like they would be amazing to dive to 🙂

    • It does take a bit of getting used to that is true, but it actually feels so natural once you get the hang of it and of course getting a great instructor really does help! Hope you get to do it one day!

  • Carol

    Oh my! My husband went through all of that. As for me, I can’t even swim!

    • I bet he had a great time in the end. From the people I met in the Philippines, mostly on boat trips clinging to their life jackets, I can believe that!! It shocked me that so many people in Asia can’t swim. In the uk we learn when we are in primary (elementary) school! Although, my Gran was a swimming teacher so I learnt even before that!

  • Kevan Toombs

    I took a scuba course in college years ago and by the end of the semester I had explored the campus pool thoroughly but never made it to the open water dive. If it was 10 years between your first experience and certification then maybe there is hope for me to finish. The photos that you have certainly make me want to reconsider after seeing what I am missing out on.

    • Well we did a fun SCUBA dive around 10 years ago, never really learnt much but knowing what to expect really did help us! So that would be a great start!

  • I love diving! I’ve done not only my open water but also my advanced open water. I’ve been diving in Borneo before- in Sipidan. The diving was amazing. Some of the best I’ve ever done. Great pics– makes me want to get back in the water soon!

  • Milijana

    I have never tried scuba diving, but yes, scuba diving is a trendy thing to do. Some of my acquaintances are crazy for scuba diving in the Maldives. Your experience in Borneo sounds like much fun too!

    • It really is very rewarding to explore the underwater world, addictive even! The Maldives would be amazing!

  • The very first time I went scuba diving was on a holiday in the south of France – and we weren’t taught anything other than supposedly how to equalise (but I still couldn’t manage that – the instructions weren’t clear!) But now that I’m qualified (PADI Advanced and hopefully soon Rescue Diver) I love this incredible sport and the marine world. Don’t you find you have such a greater respect for protecting the environment that you are a certified scuba diver?

    • Yes, it seems many of those places really don’t go through enough with you, once you learn properly its quite alarming! Actually no we didn’t, because we are very enviromentally concerned to begin with and it was a concern before we did it that maybe SCUBA diving isn’t great for marine life, but we did learn lots more about how divers can help and educate others. This is why being certified is important though, I feel many of those on those sorts of dives we mentioned before cause damage without realising because they can’t control themselves in the water.