Travelling down the east coast of Australia in a campervan, I was determined to get some good dives under my belt while having the Great Barrier Reef on our doorstep.

I completed my PADI Open Water scuba diving course in Bundaberg, and on route to Port Macquarie I stopped by chance at South West Rocks. Known as one of Australia’s top five dives, I knew I had to give it a go. The dive consisted of swimming down 25 metres to the caves where you are pretty much guaranteed to see grey nurse sharks. I got off to a disastrous start.

The dark and choppy water which came from the recent bad weather unnerved me and I managed to lose a flipper in the process of getting in. My group had gone ahead so I had to descend on my own to meet them about five metres down. I grabbed hold of the anchor rope, let all the air out of my buoyancy compensator and tried to pull myself down. The strong current pulled me everywhere and I began to feel exhausted.

The water was so dark and I couldn’t make out much and I couldn’t see my buddy or anyone around. Panicking and with decreased confidence, I exhaled and went up to the surface. I was shaken and felt defeated when I got back on board. I was overwhelmed with just how strong the currents were and how scary being able to see pretty much nothing was.

A hot chocolate later and after encouragement from the returned divers, I was spurred on to give the caves a second go. This time I paired up with Leigh, an instructor who would keep close. We were told that the caves were easy and more of a psychological hurdle than anything. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but I was nervous about swimming in shark-infested waters.

I stayed close to Leigh as we pulled our way down, equalising my ears every few feet. The deeper we went, the clearer the water became. At 25 metres down on the ocean floor, we all signalled the ‘okay’ and began to swim alongside the rock faces. There were big fish in vibrant colours sporting Angelina Jolie-style lips.

The temperature dropped when we neared the cave’s entrance: a black hole with hundreds of small bright yellow fish blocking it. We swam slowly through and I gripped Leigh’s hand as she held a torch with the other. The entrance tunnel narrowed so I slipped behind her and followed until we reached a narrow chimney. Swimming directly up, we used rocks to hold onto and guide our way through.

Then everything opened up into blue. Looking up, the first thing I saw was the under belly of a huge stingray, then a turtle looking as though it was sleeping under a rock. Feeling very aware that I was now in shark territory, I scanned the area, and looking out into the water, there they were. Big dark shapes slowly moving right in front of me. I couldn’t help but stop and stare at them.

They were definitely menacing but graceful and not in the least bit bothered by our shining torches. Seeing the other divers, they gave me high fives.