Updated: Feb 16, 2020
I have been cave diving since the age of 23.
I have reinvented my career twice to be able to afford it and landed my dream job as an offshore dive medic in 2017.
It was a tonne of studying, expense, hard work and commitment. I don't have rich parents - in fact, now I only have one. It is fair to say I had definitely earned this - my dream holiday - cave diving in the Yucatan, Mexico.
Most of my cave diving has been in poor visibility, cold water and with a sincere degree of effort.
The exploration I have undertaken has been at the end of the lines of serious cave divers and let's face it, if virgin cave was easy to come by, divers would be doing it in spades.
But they are not. Europe is particularly challenging, with a pool of talented and hard core explorers. I feel fortunate and proud that I have the end of the exploration line in no less than 4 caves in Europe.
So, after 16 years, you have to ask why I hadn't been to Mexico...
Well, it's a little complicated.
In my formative cave diving years I was told by a lady cave diver that if I went to Mexico, I wouldn't want to dive anywhere else ever again.
This was somewhat disconcerting, as I enjoyed cold water diving and the challenges true exploration presents.
I made a decision then that as Mexico cave diving was so warm and easy and pretty...I'd leave it for my retirement days.
Things move on. I'd made a good career and had the cash to spare for the first time in my life to make the trip. Let's face it, with my career as a Paramedic, I'm in no doubt that life is fickle and short. You never know what is around the next corner and it is arrogant to just 'assume' you will make retirement.
I spoke to my friend Clare who recommended a very smart 5* all inclusive hotel and we got lucky in that our best dive buddy Osama Gobara, who works at Zero Gravity, was free for our chosen dates. The trip was on.
I decided to take my partner, Richard Walker, with me. Rude not to I suppose!
He had only dived one cave in Mexico during a GUE conference and said it was the most jaw dropping cave he'd ever dived. It was called Taj Maha(l) and it was to be our shake down dive.
We settled in at our gorgeous hotel and had an outstanding breakfast with coffee topped up by our waiter before our mugs were empty.
The hotel was in fact a series of giant lobbies with bats circling in the thatch roof, gorging on mosquitoes, and linked up by paths leading to 'blocks' of villas with large hotel rooms on two levels.
Large chunks of jungle intermingled with beautifully manicured gardens and all sorts of creatures lived in the bushes.
In the evenings Coaties - a sort of racoon - came out to visit whoever was feeding them. They also joined us for a morning jog on a few occasions.
Once the sun comes up, the iguanas come out. They are totally tame, are quite used to having their photos taken and are known to occasionally move in on your sun lounger!
The villa blocks were decked in marble, each had their own butler and the rooms had jacuzzi tub, rainfall shower and good aircon. Oh, and a free minibar! Topped up daily...
The food was outstanding and we went to as many a la carte restaurants as we could which was an excuse to posh up for the evening.
We grabbed our hire jeep and headed to Zero Gravity - possibly the best dive centre in the world.
The shop is full of shiny things - mostly with blue Halcyon logos - and literally hundreds of dive cylinders.
The staff work very hard and everything here has been thought through down to the smallest detail.
It isn't possible for Rich and I to go on a diving trip to a GUE facility incognito. Within seconds we were accosted by all sorts of lovely people and greeted like long lost friends by all nationalities.
I was super thrilled to FINALLY be on the same soil as Chantelle Blanchard, a Canadian cave diver. Despite having diving in common, nobody could get any sense out of either of us as we both had a previous life in horse racing and yapped non-stop until it was finally time to go diving.
Getting into warm water (25 degrees) with no gloves on is weird. The heat made everything sweaty and the warm water was only mild relief.
It was a luxuriously short walk to the water which was perfectly clear and aqua in colour.
I don't think I've ever seen formations underwater. Well, maybe a few in a cave in Croatia but nothing like this.
The haloclines were weird, giving you blurry vision especially if you're at the back!
Osama promised he'd take us somewhere better tomorrow (!)
Over the next two weeks we dived 10 different sites, sometimes with one stage, sometimes two. Sometimes with scooters, sometimes not. Sometimes with cameras, sometimes without.
It is super easy cave diving - undoubtably the easiest I've ever done and the dives were usually between 2 and 3 hours long with no decompression and never getting cold.
It was a true underwater fairyland. But the lady cave diver was wrong.
Cave diving in the Yucatan is different for sure, but after a while the dives all blurred into one and I started to enjoy the slightly more awkward entrances and complex navigation more than the galloping tunnels.
I dare to say it, but I might have started to get a little bored had I not had the camera to operate.
It definitely wouldn't stop me diving anywhere else. It's just a nice place to go on holiday once in a while.
One of my main reasons to go to Mexico was that the visibility is so clear you can sometimes forget you are underwater.
It is a photographer's paradise and, not to do things by halves, I decided to embark on underwater cave photography. Possibly the hardest form of photography there is. Certainly one of the most expensive.
I've dabbled a bit with underwater photography in caves and cheated with video lights.
Now I had my own DSLR set up and housing and a bunch of revolting strobes to frustrate the hell out of my buddies with.
My grand plan is to go around the UK photographing sumps, but practising in warm, shallow, clear water was a good choice.
It was deeply frustrating and time consuming, but that's why we practised here - 24 degree, shallow water with infinite visibility.
Think it's easy?
Go ahead and try it!
Around 70% of the cenotes in the Yucatan are supposedly unexplored.
It made me wonder what everyone else had been doing all this time!
It turns out only a handful of divers are minded to explore something new and everyone else - like us - has more than a lifetime's worth of tourist diving to be getting on with.
Images shot with Canon 100D DSLR
We were determined to have a holiday and I made Oz promise to stop me if I tried to do anything remotely challenging. But I'm pretty certain if I went back I'd be very interested in looking at undived sites. And gallons and gallons of mosquito spray!
Talking of mosquitoes (well, more wasps really) I was really fortunate that Marissa Eckert was in town for a prolonged stay with her partner and dive buddy James Draker.
Marissa has no fear of heading deep into the jungle and getting eaten and stung by pretty much anything in order to head to lesser known sites.
Marissa is a serious cave photographer and armed with my new camera housing and no clue, I was so chuffed that she hooked up for a dive with us and to show me a few pointers.
I also got to borrow her well-trained boyfriend who dutifully ran all over the cave placing strobes for photos. It was almost like he'd done this before!
We had a cracking dive in a rattly little cave called Regina, which dropped down into a superb electric blue saltwater canyon.
Marissa took some stunning images of us all, making it look so effortless.
On our way out it was my turn and I made a complete dogs dinner of taking my photos which were barely publishable.
So much to learn!
We wrapped up at a proper Mexican restaurant with cocktails and Mexican beers amidst a raging storm - it seems we had reached the opportune time to head home.
A huge thank you to Osama Gobara, Emir Memic, Christophe le Maillot, Marissa Eckert, James Draker, Clare Pooley, Fourth Element, Ursuit and all the staff at Zero Gravity and the Grand Bahia Principe Akumal.
Loving my Fourth Element dive/holiday wardrobe!
Keep your eyes peeled for a short film of the amazing scooter dives in Mexico. I'm going to have a lot of fun creating it over the next few weeks!