Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Established on the 12/12/12, this is her story...
People often ask how I came to open a dive center on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean. Well, to understand the dive center, I guess, at first, you must know a piece of my journey to get here. So, I am going to give a highly condensed version of my history. This story and all of its series of very chance meetings and moments are what brought me to this place in my life.
As a child, I wanted to grow up to be one of a few things: a doctor, a helicopter pilot, a math teacher, or a diving instructor. I was fascinated with underwater documentaries, especially those by Jacques Cousteau, but I was born a long way from the sea. I grew up in the water, as most Australians do, as my hometown, Mildura, was on the Murray River. We all went to swimming classes, camped, fished, and swam in the river until we were like fish ourselves. Diving was not, however, on the cards.
When I was six, we moved to Bendigo, where I lived for the next nineteen years. When I finished high school in 1989, my friend, Marita O'Shannassy, and I booked a cruise to Bali on Fairstar (The Fun Ship!) for February of the next year. They had a dive school onboard, so I signed up for my PADI Open Water Dive Course. It cost me five hundred dollars AUD, a lot of money in 1990, and it meant I had to get up at six am every morning for a week to study and complete pool work.
While I was studying for the certification, the ship was caught in the tail end of a hurricane and was blown off course. I remember sitting in our classroom at the front of the boat, being thrown from my seat by the height of the waves rocking the boat. In the night time, I saw the dancefloor had a sea of people that flowed with the movement of the ship—a little hurricane was not going to stop a ship full of Australians from partying, after all.
We finally made it to our first dive, and off we went. There were no alternate air sources in those days, but we had mastered the art of buddy breathing—sharing air from a single regulator—during confined water practice. It was just as well because I had been given a nearly empty tank! Within a few minutes, I was out of air. My buddy and I skilfully buddy breathed to the surface and were followed by an angry instructor, questioning our ascent. He then furiously asked how I could enter the water with an empty tank; a fair question, except it was my first-ever dive, and I still wonder how they could have given me a near-empty one, nor verified that I had checked.
The second dive had the instructor breaking open sea urchins and feeding them to the fish. Yes, this is so very wrong, but I honestly thought then that urchins were some sort of underwater nut. Rules that we have now, like not touching things, were not such an issue back in those days. He then teased a sea cucumber until a feathery substance was issued in defense. Following the standards set by my instructor, I ran my hands through it, expecting it to feel soft and feathery. Instead, it was strands of the stickiest substance. Trying to pull it off proved futile and spread the problem over two hands, much to the amusement of the instructor.
We live and learn. My dive center, Pocna, has a very stringent no-touch rule. The world has since learned better than such invasive interaction.
On my third dive, I had an inverted ear block. I couldn't get to the surface and just went up and down and up and down. I remember feeling the first tendrils of panic set in when it finally gave way and let me surface. Thankfully, I have never had one since.
My fourth dive had us confront a giant shark after being told they'd never been seen in this area; that was an amazingly cool moment.
I loved the experience of diving, but circumstances and finances would see ten years pass before I had the chance to complete another dive.
Years went by quickly, and I moved to Melbourne in 1996, interstate to Adelaide in 1997, and then abroad shortly after.
I left Australia in early 1999 after finding a tiny three-line newspaper ad in September of the year before that stating:
Would you like to work in England?
Phone this phone number
So I phoned the number out of curiosity and found out I could get a working visa there, but only if I entered the country before my twenty-eighth birthday; I was already twenty-seven-and-a-half. I had just bought a house, worked in a bank for nearly ten years by that point, and lived with my boyfriend. I decided I really wanted to do it, though, so the next six months were a flurry of activity. I worked three extra part-time jobs, rented my house out, left my boyfriend behind with him promising to join me later, took a year's leave from the Commonwealth Bank, and left Australia in March 1999. I was skeleton thin from overworking, alone, and terrified beyond belief, but I was on my way. Understand that this is way before the internet, GPS, and social media were in the world to help us.
I stayed in Bali for two weeks before going to the UK, and oh, I cried. I was so lonely and disassociated; I missed my boyfriend and I missed my mum. I nearly threw everything in so many times. But I didn't. I arrived in England with my working visa on the 27th March 1999, three days before the birthday cut-off date.
Life took off at a running pace from then on. The following years contain so many stories, parties, history, and friends. I have tried my best to keep it relevant, but if I stray a little, please forgive me. They were great times in my life.
I worked for a year in the West Midlands in Shakespeare country; it was so beautiful on the English Canals. My work was a live-in job in a pub, located along the English Canals, The Boot Inn in Lapworth. The bar was over five hundred years old. I also worked in various other sister bars on my days off. I planned to head to Greece after that, for a job that was waiting but stopped in Ibiza on the way and never made it to Greece. I ended up living and working in Ibiza for the next five seasons.
A few of the bars, offices, and hostels where I lived and/or worked I have shown below.
It was the year 2000, and it was the best of times in my first season in Ibiza. What a life! In Ibiza, people were free, and the music was amazing. Nothing can truly describe the energy of Ibiza in the year 2000. I was employed by Bar M, which was a pre-club bar for so many huge clubs, but predominantly Manumission, and as such, had a constant stream of world-famous DJs and live shows.
Manumission was the biggest club in the world, with a capacity of ten thousand, often reaching up to of thirteen thousand. The shows, the costumes, and the music meant the sensory overload was constant, and most of it was happening in the bar where I worked as a pre-party before the clubs opened their doors on their particular night. I was living the dream.
During the off seasons (winter time), I moved around. l lived in Brixton and worked at the London Ambulance Station in Waterloo, then I lived in Manchester. I street performed in La Rambla in Barcelona, spinning fire, and worked in Madrid, Ibiza, Argentina, Tenerife, and Honduras. Years later, I would work three jobs in Valencia while I went to university there. I went to Spanish school in Madrid, Granada, and Argentina.
In 2002, during one of Ibiza's off-seasons, I went to Tenerife, where I was a henna tattooist. I hadn't been diving for around ten years by that stage, and I went to check out the dive center there. I had it in mind that maybe I could get a job there and complete all my courses up to Dive Master, something that they eventually offered to me, but it was just before I was to return to Ibiza, and I could not do it.
So I completed my PADI Advanced Course there. It was so different from what I had learnt. They insisted that I do a refresher before the dive. I was glad they did, and then we went diving in strong currents off the zodiacs. For those that do not know these boats, they have blow-up sides, and for the life of me, I could not re-enter the boat.
We had farmer-john-style wetsuits, and I had forgotten to zip up the bottom of the legs. On every boat, there is always that diver that tells everyone how good they are. Well, when this man saw me trying to zip up my wetsuit, he pushed his help onto me and grabbed my legs. This pivoted me in the water and had me placing both my hands straight down onto sea urchins, which is extremely painful. I learnt then not to try and pick them out with a needle like you do with splinters. Now I know to soak them in vinegar to help dissolve them.
Early 2004 saw me complete my SSI Rescue Course in Australia during another Ibiza low season. I went to a dive school in Melbourne and did my SSI Stress and Rescue. I did everything from the shore, and still, to this date, I have never dived in Australia. I returned for my last season in Ibiza.
All great things come to an end, though, and Ibiza was changing. I knew it was my time to change too, so I went to Mexico.
My dear friend, Rick Wildman, one of the DJs in Bar M, now Ibiza Rocks, had hoboed through Mexico years before, and I was enthralled with his stories. When my last season in Ibiza ended, I went to Manchester where my friend, Jane Charilou, lived. I crazily worked three jobs and bought a one-way ticket to Cancun, Mexico, arriving on the 30th of January 2004. I had no knowledge of anything and no hotel booked, just an idea that I would "see where it all took me". Oh the innocence of those days.
On the 2nd of January 2005, I came to Isla Mujeres for a day trip to say g 'day to a fellow worker, Jesus from Bar M, who worked in a nightclub here call La Peña. Unfortunately, he started work at six pm, and I got there at twelve pm, so I just wandered around the island. I never even saw North Beach that time, can you believe? La Peña was a legend in her time and owned by Del, the ex-manager of Bar M. It's such a small world.
As I was walking around, bodily needs encouraged me to stop at a hostel and ask if I could use the toilet. I asked the receptionist if I could, and she said, "Yes. To the left and to the left". I walked into the hostel and the vibrancy hit me like a force. People sitting in hammocks under palm trees and relaxing in groups; there was so much energy. So I returned to reception and asked if they had camping, to which the then seventeen-year-old Vanessa Schramm, Pocna Hostel Receptionist, said, "Yes we do". Many years later, she is still a dear friend.
So I went to Cancun, bought a tent, and my life transformed. I would live in tents off and on for the next ten years, spending over five years of my life living in one, although, my tent did go through various upgrades. The campgrounds were another world. A community of free souls. If I had not needed the toilet that day, if I had been at a different hotel, everything would be so different.
On my way to buy the tent, I stopped at a dive center called Coral, which has now changed hands and name. I asked about a PADI Dive Master Course, and Ivan Mendoza, who was then a dive master working in the shop, was happy to sell me one. How much a part of my dive center's story he played will become evident.
From the start, in the hostel, I pestered the manager, Lucas Landeira, for a volunteer job. There were various ways to stay or work at the hostel. You could work full-time for food, accommodation and pay, volunteer for four hours a day for food and accommodation, or teach classes for an hour each day for accommodation only. These classes ranged from yoga to fire spinning, coconut tree climbing, drums, or salsa to English or Spanish lessons. Anything people could think of so they could stay for a long time in this amazing place. Lucas had made this place magical.
I worked first as a kitchen volunteer and then later in the newly opened Pocna Beach Bar. I was amongst the first generations of workers there and the only female at the time to work this crazy, famous, and now-gone beach bar. Oh, what fun I had, but oh, what a terrible Dive Master candidate I was. I was dedicated and I studied, but it was hard with my nightime job till three am and with the "wind down" after-work stops at Coconuts or La Peña. What an incredible time it was in Isla in those days. The memories we made!
Lucas was an incredible manager, and Pocna was the soul of Isla Mujeres in her era. Lucas organized so many famous acts to play in Pocna. I was lucky enough to see Julieta Venegas, Los Autenticos Decadentes, Gondwana, Aguas Aguas, Fidel Nadal, Mancha de Rolandi, amongst many others. Some of the artists still return to see the island and are familiar faces here now.
While working as a volunteer in the kitchen, I was offered the chance to work on a boat and travel down to Providencia. At first, I said "no," but then I thought about why I was there. The idea that I would "see where it all took me", so I eventually said "yes." It was an amazing journey with many adventures. I got to sail with super pods of dolphins and watched the phosphorescent plankton in the nighttime. I spent three weeks sailing the ocean, stopping at islands like Swan Island, San Andres, and Providencia. At one stage, we were rescued by a boatload of Cuban refugees, two of which were doctors, that came aboard and fixed everything broken that has made us limp into Swan Island. They carved their address on a coconut, since we couldn't find a pen, to let their relatives in Miami know they had made it safe. I found out years later that the captain, Phil, had contacted their relatives, and he even still had the coconut. What courageous people they were and so willing to help. Their kindness left a lasting impression on me.
I returned to work in the beach bar again after my sailing exploits and met someone there that would travel halfway around the world with me and follow my dreams to become a dive instructor. I left to meet up with him in Spain a week before Hurricane Wilma hit.
He played such a vital part in the direction of my life. I went to live with him and his family in Spain, and it is here that I went to university to really study Spanish. I found employment in three different bars and saved madly for us to go to Utila so I could complete my PADI Instructor Certification. His family did not speak English, and this was prove to be integral in my path to opening my dive center.
Even though he is not in my life now, I am incredibly grateful for the influence he had on my life's journey. His family is still very much a part of my life, having visited me recently on this magical island. Without their generosity in letting an unknown, foreign-speaking stranger live with them, and welcoming me so completely into their lives, everything would have been different very different.
We landed in Utila in 2006, and I completed my PADI Instructor Development Course (IDC) there. Again, I was a terrible candidate. My skills were not up to scratch, and it had been about eighteen months since I had last dived. I struggled through the extremely pressured course, but I was determined.
I nearly didn't get the chance to start my IDC as I had to have my medical done, and Dr John, famous to those in Utila and still a good friend, had been called out to attend to someone with an acute asthma attack.
The next day, he said I had tonsillitis and might need to have it dealt with. I asked to return the next day and he replied it would doubtfully be better. I missed the very important IDC two-day prep. Extremely early the next day, he checked my throat and yelled around the clinic, "It's a miracle; I have never seen anything like it." This is very Dr John. So, I was finally given permission to join the IDC.
My knees visibly shook during my presentations, and I was that student who gave more problems than were assigned. I had missed the vital two-day IDC prep, which left me scrambling to catch up. I had been a few years out of diving and my wetsuit was a brand-new triathlon farmer-john style 5mm. I went straight into a swimming pool for training and had never, ever been trained in a pool or done fresh water diving before. Anyone that knows the three rules of doing a buoyancy check will understand how much my struggle was real.
When you change environment
When you change equipment
When you have been a long time without diving
Fortunately, I passed, but I really had to put in the hours and dedication. Andy Phillips had been very patient with me and was such an inspirational Course Director. He even forgave me for being late when I had left the kettle boiling on a gas stove while my partner slept, and had to run home to turn it off. I don't think he truly believed it to be true, he teased me about it for years; it was! He is very sadly missed now amongst the diving community and was an incredible mentor to me and so many.
I then stayed on to do my PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDT) Internship with Utila Dive Center (UDC). I would wake up every morning at around five am, and rather than stay in bed, I would just get up and go and prepare the equipment for the students of the instructor that I was shadowing. It was normal for a course to have about ten students, so there was plenty to do before class started. I forged ahead and worked well. I had fantastic teachers in the instructors at UDC who patiently guided a new instructor freshly fledged.
During and after my MSDT, my partner and I took over the bar at UDC, and we worked it together.
I wanted to stay in Utila but knew I would have no chance of getting the golden ticket of an instructor job at UDC. So, I went to work at Bay Island College of Diving (BICD). Now, it is a magnificent dive center with an incredible Course Director, but back then, it wasn't a shadow of what it now is.
I would wake up early and open the bar at UDC with my homemade cupcakes and breakfasts, so my partner could sleep in and take over later. Then I would go to my work at BICD and return to close the bar after. One day, as we were closing, the staff asked me to stay so they could have a drink after a staff meeting. They came out of the staff meeting and asked if I was willing to leave my newly acquired position at BICD and come and work with them. I was blown away. This was a dream come true - of course, I said yes.
Andy, had once asked me if I felt I could teach in Spanish. Now I knew why. I had said no at first and then rethought it, changing my answer to yes. Hadn't I just gone to University in Valencia and lived there with my partner's family? Meeting my partner and his family had become a crucial part of the formation of my life story because I became the Spanish-teaching instructor for UDC as, even though it was a Spanish-speaking country, they had been unable to find a Spanish-speaking Instructor. Between you and me, my Spanish was atrocious, but I soldiered on and learnt what I needed to learn and taught my first courses there in Spanish.
I felt so extremely fortunate to become one of the instructors at Utila Dive Center, and there I worked with Andy Phillips and another amazing Course Director called Angel Navarro. I also completed my instructor Handicap Scuba Association International with Angel. Jim Hutchinson, Jimmy Fingers as he was known, had just finished on the island before I arrived, but his stories were renowned. I missed my chance to work with this legendary Course Director, but years later, our paths would cross, and we would become friends.
Without this phenomenal job and amazing mentors, I would never have been equipped to open my unplanned dive center on Isla. I had two wonderful years there. I shared a house with my boyfriend and friends, Sasha Engeler and his then-wife Jennifer, who were doing their PADI Dive Masters. It was crazy, fun times. Sasha himself went on to become a Course Director and is now doing fantastic things working with PADI. I completed SO many certifications and taught so many courses at many different levels, including my PADI Tech Deep Instructor, PADI Staff Instructor, Beautiful Oceans Scientific Instructor, HSAI instructor, and every single PADI specialty instructor course I could complete, I'm a bit like that. I also gained invaluable experience staffing IDCs with Andy and learning how to evaluate IDC students.
Circumstances had me return alone to Australia at the end of 2008; my mother needed me. It was hard to leave Utila, my job, and my partner behind. I decided to travel home with every piece of dive gear and dive material that I owned, much to the chagrin of my partner. The farewell was tense as he was angry that I was leaving with 87kg of things that he felt were a waste. It was not easy to ship so much stuff from Honduras, and setting this up had taken a lot of time and effort. Years later, I would use nearly every piece of that equipment. All my notes that I had taken during my time there and the dive manuals, as nothing was electronic yet, proved to be invaluable. I am so glad I never left it all behind.
When my mother was better, I returned to Mexico. Lucas, the manager of Pocna Hostel and my friend, who had previously allowed this crazy Australian party animal to work with them repeatedly, offered to make a position for me so I could stay; I just had to promise one year. I had only intended to stay a month, but he could see that staying would be good for me. So, he opened a position as an extra in reception where a position had not before existed. I also taught yoga for a month as a volunteer while the yoga teacher, my friend Elissa Hawke, went on vacation. My life's energy started flowing back into me. How little Lucas knew that, once again, he was changing my life.
Later in the year 2010, Lucas Landeira mentioned they were going to put in a swimming pool. I asked Lucas if he was to do this, then to make sure that I was the dive instructor associated with it. Lucas looked at me and asked, "Would you like to open the dive center?" to which I replied, "Of course!!"
To be able to open a dive center on my favorite island in the world, in my favorite hostel in the world, was like another dream come true. I went back to Australia and sold my house. I had worked extremely hard all my life and had managed to own my house outright at the young age of thirty-four. Now it was gone and the money was going to be used to open the dive center and to help continue my very expensive journey with IVF to try and have a child, another long history but one with a happy ending.
Lucas and I spent the next two years planning and learning.
I took advantage of this time to go to Thailand to continue my diving and update my certifications since I hadn't dived since leaving Utila. I did my PADI Master Instructor course in Koh Tao with Ban's Dive Center, and the Course Directors were Tim Hunt and Guillaume Fargues: two more world-class Course Directors. I had gone a long time without diving, and this was a great way to get back into the industry and was also a step toward my Course Director qualification. I did my PADI Master Instructor Course alongside Marcel Van den Berg who is now an incredibly talented, high-profile Course Director in Koh Tao.
I completed the first part of a cave-diving course while I was there, in a reservoir called Koh Sak, staying in floating huts and diving from long boats. It was brilliantly set up by a tech and cave instructor called Craig Werger, and I learnt so much from him. I hadn't done any tech diving since my Tech Instructor certification on my last day in Utila in 2008, and that was now nearly three years ago. I had so much to relearn. The logistics behind setting this trip up in the middle of nowhere taught me a lot about logistics and organization. Craig was so impressive and professional that when we returned to Koh Tao, I shadowed his next tech course to relearn and improve my rusty and out-of-date skills.
When I returned to Isla Mujeres, I went back to work in the Pocna reception, and then I opened a bar called Tres Mentiras. It's no longer mine, but it's still going strong.
The name was based on three lies that had evolved with me and a group of friends at the Pocna Beach Bar during my first time working there.
I'm leaving tomorrow
I'm not drinking tonight
I love you
I have heard these lies repeated up and down the Americas and will happily tell you the story behind each of these lies another time.
While running Tres Mentiras, I stubbornly continued alone on my IVF journey that would take ten rounds and ten years before finally blessing me with my miracle daughter.
Opening a dive center from scratch is not an immediate or easy thing to do. Especially in a foreign country in a foreign language as a single female. I learnt that blonde hair is most definitely not an advantage.
You see, the thing about never actually planning to open a dive center in my life meant that I was woefully unprepared and extremely naïve about what it entailed. I had only worked as an instructor at UDC but had nothing to do with the running of a dive center. UDC was my godsend in so many ways. Without having been an instructor there, I would never have had the experience of multi-level teaching and putting together classes and dives the way I did. But the rest of it, was "learn by experience".
I had a hard road to walk and a long way before I would be accepted by the island and her people, even though I had lived and worked here for many years. I had a language to master, I'm still working on this, and I was a new kid on the block for a long, long time.
So the first thing we needed was a boat. I met a man, Storm, who knew pretty much everyone. He would remain one of my dearest friends until we tragically lost him in 2021. It was a loss felt deeply by the whole island.
Storm and I traveled all over Isla and Cancun, searching for the right boat. Looking and asking everywhere and everyone, visiting many hidden boat yards behind ten-foot walls, when finally, Storm called me up, super excited. He had found a boat with permits for all the dive sites. Imagine my surprise when we went to look at it and there she was, sitting at the bottom of five feet of water.
"Maruca" was a very well-known snorkel boat on the island that fell into non-use. When a boat isn't being used and a hurricane is coming, the easiest thing to do is to put her underwater. So that is where we found her.
We pulled her out of the water and gave her lot of TLC and a lot of work, she was slowly, very slowly, put back together, and suddenly, we had our boat, and one with twenty permits!
Then came the logistics. The pool wasn't built, and there didn't appear to be one getting done any time soon, so we had the boat but nowhere to practice the skills.
Playa Norte, or North Beach, is Isla's infamous beach and one said by Jacques Cousteau to be one of the most beautiful in the world. I remember walking up and down it, neck deep in the water of North Beach, looking for the perfect spot for skills - too many waves.
I tried under the pier in front of Mia Reef, which then was called Avalon - too much current.
Finally, we solved this by contracting with Ballyhoo to dock our boat there for customers and do our skills there under the dock. It was perfect.
Then came the equipment. I was familiar with SCUBA Pro, and I wanted to continue using their equipment. Fortunately, there was a factory outlet in Cancun, so Lucas and I went there and ordered the school's first ten full sets of equipment, fins, wetsuits, and whatever else we thought the school might need.