Skip to Content

A Scary Scuba Diving Story – The Yongala

The scary scuba diving story is the scariest of my travel horror stories.  If you’re  learning to scuba dive, read this first and avoid my mistake! Is scuba diving scary? Well, yes, it can be, depending on the person, but this experience would scare the whatsit out of most people.

Despite this newbie diver story, I got back in the water and still love diving some 20 years later. I have a couple more scary scuba diving stories, but this one was the stuff of nightmares. We have a full scuba diving section on this site coverring various dive trips and liveaboards.

me, scuba diving
Me looking happy scuba diving The Great Barrier Reef

Scary Scuba Diving Stories, Horror, Turtles, Sharks and More

How We Started Scuba Diving

Backpackers on a 12 month RTW aren’t known for being cashed up, we certainly weren’t.

Two skinny, raggedy travelers arrived in Sydney after three months in India with barely enough money to get ourselves around the Great Southern Land.

My then boyfriend, now husband (love story here), is Australian, so we dutifully did the rounds of his relatives. His late grandfather was a lovely old bloke, he gave us a large cash injection to pay for an operation on James’s eyes.

So we (ahem) spent it on learning to scuba dive and going on liveaboards.

His eyes are OK, he can see!

Not my scary scuba diving story. Sharks are cool.
I used to be terrified of sharks, now they are my friends.

Learning to Scuba Dive on Magnetic Island

We chose to do our PADI on Magnetic Island because it was cheap. The Great Barrier Reef is a long way out from the Queensland coast, so if you’re going to learn to scuba dive you have to factor in additional fees for boats. On Magnetic Island you can do it from the beach, it’s a good deal.

The initial PADI is a three day course, with classroom work, pool work and finally beach dives.

There was a medical which you also had to pay for, a GP on the island did those. People DO fail the medical..

You also have to be able to swim. That sounds obvious, but people do try to learn to scuba dive without being swimmers. It is tested, you have to swim a few lengths. There was one boy in our group who couldn’t swim a length without fins, somehow he managed to get in.

The course isn’t hard, the exam at the end is very straightforward. We did ours sitting under the palm trees on the beach, all very lovely.

We  immediately went on and did our Advanced PADI course, another two days. This is where I came unstuck.

Hello lovely turtle friend, I love you!


How Does Someone Scared of Water Cope With Scuba Diving?

It’s true, I was a scaredy cat. I’d never even managed to snorkel pre PADI course. I’m not so much scared of water as the things that are IN the water. That’s right, sharks. And fish. And bits of seaweed used to freak me out. 

I blame all this on watching Jaws at an early age, it’s a brilliant movie, but it scared the crap out of me. I’ve even been known to freak out in swimming pools, a shark could sneak  in through the secret James Bond tunnel, couldn’t it?

So Scuba diving was challenging for me.

The pool work went well, we were ready for our first beach dive.

That was when the magic happened.

We saw a beautiful green turtle on our very first dive. James said I disappeared after it in a cloud of sand whacking him in the face with my fins as I went. I love turtles and I love being where they are. I was smitten.

That’s enough background, onto the scary scuba diving story.

diving the Yongala. turtle
I actually took this photo on the Yongala all those years ago. It’s a beautiful dive.

The Scary Scuba Diving Story

Day one of our advanced PADI course, the morning after passing our exam, we went out to dive the SS Yongala. It’s a deep wreck dive in open water. It’s what you might call challenging.

Choppy seas and strong currents mean you have to get from the boat to the wreck by clinging to ropes. Divers descend a line to the bow of the sunken ship and make their way around the outside of the wreck, aiming to get back to the rope with enough air in their tanks to ascend safely.

The Yongala is spectacular, there are turtles, sea snakes, fabulous soft coral and clouds of fish so thick you can hardly see through them. We made our way to the stern, checking out port holes along the vessel’s 109m length as we went. At the stern we stopped to do a check for nitrogen narcosis. I think I did OK on this, but maybe I was a bit narked, I don’t know.

As we turned towards the bow I started to float. This is what happens when you use up your air, you get lighter and start going up. I should have been able to void my BCD but, as a brand new diver, I just wasn’t experienced enough to do this properly. I couldn’t swim down, I was at the back of the group, frantically twanging my tank banger  to get James’s attention. I could see him looking around for me. But he didn’t look up. Nobody did.

We were in over 25m of water and I eventually lost sight of my group and the wreck. I gave up and floated to the surface.

An ascent like that isn’t  good for you, I’d had no decompression stops, I was worried about the bends, but worse still, I found myself bobbing about in fairly heavy swell in the open ocean. NO BOAT IN SIGHT!

Talk about scary! There are tiger sharks out there, plenty of them. If they didn’t get me I was just going to float away and be lost forever.

Luckily, there was a large buoy nearby, the sort of buoy that would scare me normally, but this time it was my lifeline. I finned towards it, hung on tight and waited.

still alive after my scary scuba diving story
I love diving, it makes you look cool!

I’m still alive, you can probably tell.

After a while a tender from a very fancy boat passed by and saw me. Pure luck. They dropped me back at my boat in a teary mess. An extremely worried James surfaced shortly afterwards. He’d actually run out of air in his panic to find me and had to make his ascent on our instructor’s air tank.

So that is my scary scuba diving story, the time I nearly died. I went straight back down and did a second dive, this time clinging to my instructor’s hand the whole time. Learning to scuba dive clearly doesn’t end the day you get your PADI.


Photo credit, the turtle isn’t mine, that picture was taken by the photographer on Calypso reef cruises, Port Douglas. I got over this scuba horror story and I still love diving, I have around 100 dives to my name now and I hope I can do many, many more but for now the children have taken over my life so I’m happy to snorkel with them on the Great Barrier Reef, we live near. I still find scuba diving scary, but once I’m in the water marveling at nature, joy outweighs fear. That’s how it is for a lot of people I think. One day I’ll be back in the water.

School Sores or Impetigo, a Horrible Tropical Disease.
Sadhu India
Why Love India?


Thursday 14th of January 2021

Oh gosh, what a terrible experience! Sorry you experienced that and hopefully, it won't happen nowadays!

I have been a scuba diving instructor for a few years and unfortunately, due to Covid, we all were made redundant... So, I started a diving blog with free scuba tips, dive destination guides, and interviews with diving experts. Please take a look and let me know if there is a topic you would like to learn more abo

Happy Bubbles!


Thursday 12th of March 2020

I had a similarly faulty BCD incident when I was diving in India at 70 feet. The difference was that my NAUI instructors from Chicago had me on 8 dives already at that point and I evaluated my situation differently. Running out of air but keeping an eye on my SPG and knowing when to signal my dive buddy (whom I never lost sight of), helped get me his Octo and have a safe ascent. This is, unfortunately, one of many stories I've heard about PADI not preparing people thoroughly.

Dive Concepts

Monday 15th of April 2019

Such a nice post and thanks for sharing your diving experience with us. Bali is famous for scuba diving and according to me, Dive Concepts is one of the best dive centers in Bali. You must visit Bali and enjoy your vacation.


Sunday 12th of October 2014

Did your ascent get reported to padi? As per PADI regulations you should have never done the second dive. Were you asked to fill in incident report??? After a runaway ascent the instructor is supposed to check the diver and abandon the dive.

You were very lucky to have been picked up by a passing boat.

I'm glad you are still diving, it is the most amazing feeling being free underwater.

There are many amazing reputable Padi centres and Padi is very strict in their procedures and protocols.

If the incident was reported then it is unlikely the company would have had no repercussions.

Alyson Long

Sunday 24th of March 2019

It was 20 years ago now Em. Having just sat through my son's diver certification course and been with him on his open water dives on a liveaboard, I can see the massive gulf between his instruction and ours. He came out of his course a decent diver, I've buddy dived with him a few times since and he's great. I couldn't fault the team at Divers Den in Cairns.


Monday 13th of October 2014

Yes it was PADI. Lets just say they were fairly casual.


Monday 5th of May 2014

Secret james bond tunnel!!! HAHAHA!! i thought i was the only one who thought of that before!