Q&A With Tec Guru Pete Mesley Part 1
In the first of a two-part feature, we talk to Pete Mesley, a hugely charismatic figure on the international diving scene, who has carved a niche for himself in the world of technical diving and expeditions.
Q: You are undoubtably one of the southern hemisphere’s most-experienced technical diving instructors and explorers, but how did you first get into diving in the first place, and what led you down the technical route?
A: I have always had a love for the water and from a very young age I wanted to be underwater. I have memories of wearing this ‘fishbowl-style’ rubber mask whenever I went swimming and would strap empty pool chlorine bottles (twins) to my back with old rope I found in the garage. Thank heavens I didn’t try and breathe from them or this would have been a very short story! Like some kids (you know who you are), I also attempted to implode my lungs by trying to breathe from a hose pipe from the bottom of the pool while the hose was outside. That didn’t end well. But I just loved being underwater.
I had converted this love for being in the water to becoming a marine biologist. This is what I associated diving with being in terms of a vocation, but once I hit senior school I realised that I needed to go to university in order to study marine biology. That stopped me dead in the water, as I was no academic giant and knew that there was no way I would finish school, let alone go to university!
This was quite disheartening for me. It wasn’t until I had left school (I did manage to finish my senior schooling with A-levels in English and Art!) and was living in London at the age of 20 with some ex-school mates that the underwater world reared its head again. One of my friends was heading out to do his pool session for his open water diver course one night. I asked if I could join him.
After some negotiating at the pool, someone took me in for my first dive. It was then I knew, wholeheartedly, that this was for me. I just loved it. Now, I had a different route in order to make this passion a reality – to become a dive instructor!
So I spent every waking hour, every weekend and every penny I had dedicated to pursue my goal of making diving my career.
Now, diving in the South of England was not for the faint-hearted. We would regularly be diving wrecks in the 30m-45m range, with a large-capacity steel tank with a three-litre pony bottle for redundancy strapped to the side of it being the norm. This was in 1991. So I guess most of the diving I was doing was in the 30m and deeper range. It was an easy progression to get into technical diving. But it wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand in 1994 that I really started getting into mixed-gas diving. Up until then it was just deep air to 60m, with accelerated decompression with 50 percent and O2.
Q: You started specialising in CCR and technical diving trips way back in 1998. What was the driving force for you beginning your own excursions and expeditions, and what makes them different to anything else out there?
A: I planned a trip to Fiji in 1995 and I will never forget what a shocker of a trip I had. I was there with my wife and I had planned to do some diving while we were on holiday. I booked on the trip and we headed out on the boat. Most of the divers were ‘resort divers’, fairly new, inexperienced holiday makers wanting to get out for a dive, which was totally fine. We were all briefed and all 12 of us were told to stick with the guide. You can imagine what a spectacle that was.
Arms and legs flying around everywhere, etc. About 15 minutes into the dive we were all given the ‘thumbs up’ and the dive was ended because one guy went through his gas really quickly. That was it. I vowed to never again be subjected to this madness and from that day onwards, I dedicated myself to planning diver trips focusing on experienced divers. There had to be more people out there who felt the same way as I did.
From there onwards I started specialising in rebreather trips, logistics and gear.
Q: Some of your Lust4Rust destinations include Bikini Atoll, Truk Lagoon, the Solomon Islands and the South Pacific. What are the high points and attractions of your chosen locations?
A: Well, like most, I’m a diver and explorer first and foremost, so the biggest drive to go to these areas is the personal ambition to dive these world-class places. I remember when I was just learning to dive and my instructor in London was heading off to Truk Lagoon. I couldn’t believe it. He was so lucky to go to a place that I only dreamed of going. I remember thinking to myself that I would never be able to afford to go there… Thankfully, I was wrong!
Highpoints? Wow, where do I start? For me, personally, it’s the whole culture of diving. It quite literally is all aspects that brings me such joy. I just love spending time with people, building friendships and sharing experiences which are special and lifelong memory builders. It’s also the historical aspects of diving these massively important monuments in time.
So when I descend onto the stern section of Japanese battleship Nagato, bypassing the massive rudders, four screws and 16-inch guns to get to the bridge tower where none other than Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto stood, giving the order to attack Pearl Harbour, that is a humbling experience not soon forgotten.
Other strong memories etched into my core emotions was swimming into hold four on an ocean liner converted into a passenger/cargo auxiliary raider for the Combined Fleet in Truk Lagoon. The Aikoku Maru. This hold was converted into troop accommodations and during Operation Hailstone in February 1944, Aikoku was one of the first ships to be bombed by the US during the attack. A number of 500lb bombs were dropped into the forward holds which triggered the ordinance which was stored there.
This catastrophically blew the ship in half, totally destroying the first half of the ship. The intense shockwave and heat instantaneously killed all 400-odd troops in hold four, totalling over 700 deaths on one ship alone. You could see the buckling of the bulkheads as a result of this shock wave. Going into this hold was a very humbling experience for me and the overwhelming feeling of complete and utter loss was claustrophobic. I am constantly reminded when I dive in Truk (Chuuk) about the ravages of war and hopefully by not forgetting what happened there, this may never happen again in the future.
Q: You are renowned for your Lust4Rust wreck-diving expeditions, but you are now getting up close and personal with some big critters with Shock & Awe Big Animal Diving. Tell us a bit more about that side of the business.
A: It’s funny, I have built a career based on being a ‘Rust Head’ but what I really love is just being in the water. You could put me in a shit pond with no visibility and I would still be happy! I cut my teeth on the South Coast of England where every waking hour we were talking about wrecks, finding them, diving them (and the possibility of locating and procuring a bit of spidge, too).
I left the UK and went walkabout working as a dive instructor in the Red Sea, Cyprus, South Africa, Australia and finally making my way to New Zealand in 1994. I worked very hard to build the ‘Lust4Rust’ brand so I had to create another brand to furnish my absolute love for big animals, which I was subjected to while on my travels. That’s where ‘Shock&Awe’ Big Animal Diving was born. Somehow I don’t think that running a trip to the Galapagos on a Lust4Rust trip would wash? But, man-oh-man, what fun I am having.
I think, in fact – I know – that I am the luckiest man alive (apart from having the most-understanding wife on the planet) I get to not only dive some of the best places on Earth and witness some pretty cool shit, but spend time with outstanding people.
And if there is a ‘Cheeky Shiraz’ to be had at the end of the day, then that would finish it off perfectly. Shock&Awe has just really started kicking into gear in the last few years. I run trips to Galapagos specialising in ten-day rebreather-only and experienced OC diver trips. Socorro Islands, Palau, great white experiences in New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Solomons. All the places with incredible experiences.
Q: You were a pioneer in the world of technical diving, and rebreathers, particular in New Zealand. Tell us more about your progression into the deep.
A: By trade I am a Course Director and have been teaching dive professionals since 2000. I have also been training technical divers for even longer. I did my first tech instructor rating in 1994. When I got to New Zealand, man, that was an education. No-one had ever seen a DIN fitting before, let alone knew about technical diving. I had to conduct all my personal tech training in Australia, then come back to NZ and home grow some tech divers so I had someone to dive with.
I was just looking back and having a laugh. Nitrox was the new kid on the block and I had a blending panel made for me from an engineer’s shop. We pumped the country’s first nitrox fill in late-1994. Too funny! From there we plodded along and the next few years I started reading all about these rebreather contraptions! Then, I think it was 1995 when Peter Ready did his world tour promoting his PRISM rebreather. Mesmerised by this technology I lapped up as much information as I could, did the try dive in the pool and was hooked, line and sinker!
But being a man of meagre means (I was a poor dive instructor!) I could not afford these amazing pieces of technology (The Inspiration had just come out) so I set about doing a Dolphin Rebreather course in Australia. Before the course had even finished I was already hard at work trying to figure out how to close the loop. That’s when I sought the council of the AARG (Australian Amateur Rebreather Group).
This was brilliant. It was actually a bunch of like-minded (skint) diving enthusiasts who were totally and utterly crazy! Their motto was ‘Never test your unit in a pool’! So long story short – the birth of ‘The Widowmaker’ in 1996. I had converted a Dolphin semi-closed rebreather into this gigantic monstrosity. BUT it worked! In fact I completed over 500 hours on the Widowmaker and successfully dived the Niagara (125m deep ocean liner in NZ). The Widowmaker was 100 percent manual CCR, I push a button and O2 goes in.
That’s it! What was I thinking? (Thank God my wife knew nothing about this except for the name and she really wanted me to call it something else). It was monitored by three independent cells. One Drager PO2 meter, an Aladin Pro AirZ and one of the first production ‘Brick’ VR computers from Kev Gurr. Anyway.
The Widowmaker did me proud for a few years. I finally bought a Buddy Inspiration CCR in 1999 because I knew that I would never be able to teach people on my homebuild rebreather, so had to go legit! Much to the relief of my wife. I have been actively diving the Inspiration since then, just recently going over to the JJ in 2016.
Photographs courtesy of Pete Mesley
Click here for Scuba Diver ANZ issue 31