The following profile by Strike was first published in August 2005 in his on-line ‘Nekton’ Magazine.
Born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, Peter Fields’ early ambitions to be a military aircraft pilot were thwarted when, after taking flying training with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he was grounded for spurious reasons by an Army medic during Compulsory Military Training.
Although not flying again until he was in his thirties, this natural born adventurer carved out a fresh career path in the commercial and recreational diving industries. Setting out in the southern summer of 1977- 78, he and two companions sailed a 47-foot sloop from New Zealand through the Southern Ocean with the intention of being the first to dive Cape Horn.
Moving to Australia and the eventual establishment of his own business as a distributor of diving equipment, his continuing passion for wreck diving ultimately led to the discovery, (together with John Riley) of Sydney’s last big shipwreck, the ‘Myola’, missing since 1919.
Still continuing his search for other minor wrecks on a regular weekly basis, Peter Fields is widely regarded as one of the Australian diving industry’s most knowledgeable and charismatic characters and a person that everyone privileged to know him is proud to call, ‘friend’.
Q. Tell me about your early diving experiences?
I began diving in 1961 and, like many other people of that era, was partly self-trained.
My first dives were with a twin Porpoise set-up using inverted cylinders in which the second stage hose led from the groin up to the regulator in the mouth. I quickly became hooked on the sport and gradually progressed through to CMAS 2-Star Instructor standard.
During the ‘sixties, divers in New Zealand were largely pioneers. Because of the nature of our diving, generally deep and in areas affected by strong currents, we had to be innovative. As a consequence we were, in many respects, way ahead of those countries where diving was less intensive. Examples of this were the invention of primitive but effective buoyancy compensators, the early adoption of decompression meters and the use of well-cut and perfectly tailored wetsuits.
During this period, I dived extensively around New Zealand, especially in the northeast corner where conditions for a good part of the year – including the summer months – are not dissimilar to those found in Sydney and Jervis Bay. It’s an area that features some fantastic offshore places like the Poor Knights Islands, other island and coastal dive locations, deep drop-offs and spectacular seamounts which are the equal of the worlds very best.
Q. Who have been the people that have exercised the greatest influence overyour approach to diving?
Among my contemporaries in those early days were people like author and amateur naturalist Wade Doak and wreck and treasure hunter Kelly Tarlton. Other people that come immediately to mind were folk like Alf Dickenson, owner of Moray Industries, and Dick Bonin, President of Scubapro USA with whom I worked closely and who I admire intensely.
Alf had an early genius for producing exceptionally good wetsuits and other diving equipment. He offered me the opportunity to manage Moray Australia, a generous offer that first brought me to Australia.[ I always say it was at this point that I won life’s lottery! Australia has been good to me, I hold it in high regard and consider it my much loved adopted country. I even barrack for the Wallabies!]
Later, through my own company, I represented Dick Bonin’s company, Scubapro USA, a relationship which lasted for more than a decade. Dick was a straight arrow, a man who did business on the strength of a handshake. Just like Alf, Dick was yet another dedicated and passionate diver with an enviable war record as an Underwater Demolition Team lieutenant in the US Navy during the Korean War.
Q. What aspects of diving have you been involved with?
Having attained CMAS Instructor status, I teamed up with a friend to establish New Zealand’s first pay-for-training diving operation that we named the Auckland School of Skin Diving. Within a short space of time we found ourselves inundated with customers from the baby-boomer generation who had now reached diving age.
This success led to a partnership in Diver Services Ltd, an Auckland-based dive outfit which encompassed training, retail equipment sales, and commercial diving. We had an excellent team of commercial divers who worked on a variety of construction and underwater maintenance tasks and with a growing reputation for getting the job done, we carried out work as far away as Taiwan, Ecuador and the Persian Gulf. But beginning to see clouds on the horizon I sold out my business interests and sailed off to South America on a yacht with a couple of other guys in the hope of being the first person to dive at Cape Horn.
On my return from South America, I accepted Alf Dickenson’s offer to move to Sydney and run Moray Industries. I was subsequently head-hunted by Bob Wallace-Mitchell to help rejuvenate US Divers and their associated lines before being approached by Scubapro USA to establish my own company and become their Australian distributor.
Following my years with Scubapro, I became a partner in Pacific Commercial Diving Supplies together with Rick Poole and John Hempstalk, before selling out to a Singapore-based organisation in the mid-‘Nineties and becoming a “gentleman of leisure”.
Q. What has been your guiding philosophy in business?
Early on I resolved to have and maintain a transparently honest business approach in all of my business dealings and to always tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant it might seem at the time. The recipients may get pissed off short term, but they learn to respect your statements. By the same token, I readily accepted the need – when things go wrong – to apologise where necessary, take the kicks and, having learned from the experience, then move on!
Q. What have been your most memorable dives?
It’s hard to recall particularly outstanding dives from an un-logged collection of more than 5,000 dives, but dredging deep into a failing memory are several from those early days in New Zealand; such as when we came across a vast host of packhorse crayfish on the move off White Island, an active volcano in the Bay of Plenty, where just one big net bag of ten crays weighed 160 pounds.
Apart from adventures in early construction and commercial diving, I would have to include my attempt to be the first person to dive Cape Horn, (only to come second to a Frenchman!) and the search for, and eventual discovery of, the wreck of the Myola off Sydney, in 1994. Great, too, was diving on the wreck of the German light cruiser Dresden in South America.
I have an abiding love for wreck diving and spent years diving Rabaul Harbour, in Papua New Guinea, prior to the 1994 volcanic eruption which buried the town, and a fantastic collection of WW ll Japanese shipwrecks, beneath volcanic ash and lava. Then, of course, there are the wonderful wrecks of Truk Lagoon; and at Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands, the USS Aaron Ward, the perfect example of a fighting ship which went down in 1943 in 70 metres of water. She is a memorable dive in anybody’s money.
Q. What are some of the most notable changes that you’ve witnessed in the development of recreational diving? What – among those changes – have been good? And what bad?
Certainly the most notable change has been the influence of the training agencies in broadening recreational diving’s appeal and taking it from an activity with main appeal to the spearfishing community to one that can now be equally enjoyed by people of all age groups and interests.
The outcome has been a bit like the curate’s egg, good in parts, bad in others! The improvements in equipment have been fairly spectacular, with good wet and dry suits, better instrumentation, buoyancy compensation and computerisation. Divers, today also have a much better knowledge and understanding of decompression and its problems and how to avoid those problems.
On the downside, however, there has been a lowering of general watermanship and skill standards and a tendency for the agencies to churn out multitudes of under-experienced instructors and trainers.
Q. How do you see the future of diving? What are your views on, forexample, ‘Technical Diving’? And what do you consider to be the greatest challenges faced by recreational diving?
The popularity of scuba diving has tended to follow the baby boomer demographic. By the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties it was the sport of choice for the adventurous and would-be adventurous. With so many other soft-adventure activities now competing with diving, it is unlikely that we will ever again see those former halcyon days.
Technical diving has been good for the industry. Although, like many others, I was initially suspicious of the “voodoo gases” brigade – believing, as a former commercial diver that that sort of stuff should come down a hose to you and be controlled by a clear headed guy on the surface – I gradually came to understand and appreciate that what these guys were doing was, if properly conducted, a great sport and one with the potential to reinvigorate diving by resurrecting the excitement and adventure of those earlier years.
The spin-off benefit of technical diving to the broader community has been to make general sport diving a much safer activity than was once the case. For instance the greater usage of pony bottle back-ups, O2 for deco purposes and enriched air for ordinary scuba diving. Today, for example, I’m a confirmed nitrox user.
Nevertheless, it still seems to me that the greatest challenges faced by diving come from other activities and the fact that there are too many operators attempting to take a bigger slice from what is, essentially, a shrinking cake!
It’s a situation that’s further exacerbated by a perception that the diving industry is controlled by ‘old fogeys’ unwilling to relinquish the reins of control to a younger generation more in tune with all of diving’s possibilities!
Q. Apart from the mechanics of diving, do you have a personal philosophy or view of the activity?
My personal philosophy is essentially selfish. Diving has given me a wonderful life and enabled me to mix and meet with some of the world’s best in diving, travel to, and dive in, exotic places and have the enjoyment of a career that was both hobby and lifestyle combined. In one regard scuba dives are a bit like beer: There are no bad ones, but some are a whole lot better than others!
I still love the feeling of being weightless and isolated – I’m not a proponent of buddy diving! – and being born under a water sign (Cancer) I’ve always been attracted to the ocean.
Q. What type of diving gives you the most personal pleasure and satisfaction?
I started off as a ‘spearo’ and crayfish catcher, graduated to underwater photography, (basic black and white at the outset, thence to colour and light) and from there to my great love, wreck diving. However, with the advent of digital cameras, I’ve taken up underwater photography again and I’m loving it.
Coral reefs, after a short time, bore me with their sameness, but wrecks always manage to enchant me. Even the ones around Sydney – which a buddy of mine once described as “old car bodies on the bottom” – enthral me; and with their collections of fish life and pervading sense of history they are always worth going back to time and time again.