A Tucson Superwoman

By Wendy Sweet

Tucson Lifestyle Magazine – July 2004

From all outward appearances, silver-haired Mary Peachin fits her role as a businesswoman, community leader and volunteer fundraiser. But lurking beneath this executive exterior lies the heart and soul of an adventurer.

This mother of two adult children regularly dives with sharks. She also has bungee jumped off a tower in Australia, piloted small planes and sky dived. “I admit I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” says Mary. “I also have almost an insatiable curiosity about people. That’s partially what motivates my travel and determines my destinations.”

Mary is an adventure travel writer/photographer who also publishes an adventure newsletter on the Internet. “Peachin Adventure (peachin.com) has thousands of readers every day,” she proudly notes. “I publish the newsletter every month (except for bi-monthly issues in November/December and July/August), and each one features a different sport and destination.” In addition to including her own commentary, Mary also publishes articles by “other top-notch writers doing adventures I don’t have on my radar screen right now.” She first started the newsletter about eight years ago. “I was one of those pioneers on the Internet,” she says.

Although athletic as a child, Mary’s adventurous spirit didn’t really blossom until after she married her husband David 38 years ago. “He bought me a bicycle, and I rode across the state of Arizona a couple of times. Then we went to San Carlos, Mexico. Rather than sit on the beach, I went snorkeling, and didn’t get out of the water for two days! David bought me scuba gear, I started diving in 1978 and the rest is history,” she says.

Mary encountered her first shark in the early 1980s. “This was back when only a few people were doing research with sharks, and before people were regularly diving with them,” she remembers. She admits it can be scary to see a shark up close and personal. “That’s when the adrenaline kicks in. I get such a rush. Sharks are sleek and beautiful, but I respect them totally,” Mary says. “Two things I crave are diving and tarpon fishing. I can only go so long and I have to go diving. There is nothing more serene, quiet and beautiful.”

The intrepid adventurer, who has more than 700 dives under her belt, searches the Internet for trips and almost exclusively takes “live-aboard” dive trips. On these trips, you actually stay on the dive boat and “can dive all day and night.” Dive boats are not like cruise ships (there might be a dozen divers on board); “they are geared toward the hard core who wants to dive all day and not have to worry about hauling gear back and forth from a hotel,” explains Mary. These dive boats have come a long way since she first started taking the trips.

“‘Live-aboards’ used to be roach infested with almost inedible food,” she recalls. She generally travels alone on diving trips, while her husband David often travels with her on bicycle trips. Mary hooked her entire family on fly fishing, and they now get together for an annual fly fishing outing (daughter Suzie is a teacher in Portland, Oregon, and son Jeffrey is a CPA in San Francisco).

Despite the fact that her adventures take her all over the world, “I haven’t had to take that much time away from my family,” she says. “The kids are gone, and my husband is a workaholic CPA. I do most of my adventures during tax season to preserve my marriage,” she jokes. She does admit that all this travel results in her being “in a state of chronic jet lag. There have been times I’ve literally woken up in the middle of the night and not known where I was.”

Her adventures also have resulted in some close encounters with death. “My closest call came while tarpon fishing in Costa Rica,” Mary relates. “A wave hit our small panga boat and killed the engine. Waves kept coming in and swamped us in shark-infested waters. I was up to my neck in water holding on to the side of the boat, thinking, ‘eventually I’m going to have to let go and swim.'” Fortunately, two nearby fishermen saw what was going on and rescued both Mary and her guide. She also has experienced three emergency landings while piloting a small plane. “The worst time was when I was flying to Yuma and lost all electrical power,” she recalls. “I also had two scared passengers.” A tense 45 minutes later, she made a safe landing.

Mary bungee-jumped “because I got tired of people asking me if I had done it,” she says. “It was my biggest rush, but it was scary,” she admits. She went sky diving on her 50th birthday. “I didn’t really like the sky diving,” she says. “I didn’t have goggles on, so I couldn’t get the view I wanted, and the g-force I experienced when the chute opened came as a surprise.”

Two of Mary’s most memorable underwater experiences involve a humpback whale and a whale shark. “I was diving in the Turks and Caicos when a fellow diver tapped me and said there was something big behind us. It was a humpback whale. The whale stopped, went up to the surface and came back down, stopping just a few feet from us. We swam over within just a few inches of him, and then he swam off without a ripple. I wanted that same exciting experience with a whale shark. However, I chased the whale shark for at least 20 years all over the world before I finally saw one.” She has now seen two while diving, but both times were in “horrible diving conditions.” During one sighting in the Galapagos Islands, “the current was so strong that divers’ equipment was blowing off. It was a thrill to see the whale shark, but because I couldn’t let go of the barnacle-encrusted rock I was holding onto for dear life, I couldn’t photograph the shark or get closer.”

Mary writes about her travel adventures for numerous publications – including Sport Fishing magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Dallas Morning News. She also has written a book about sharks: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sharks, published in 2003. With the help of five experts, three editors and a collaborator, Mary wrote the book in just three months. Several of her shark photographs also are featured in the book. She seldom travels to the same place twice, the exception being British Columbia. “That is the only place I’ve returned to time and again. Vancouver (in B.C.) is my favorite city.” In fact, she and David now have a condo in Vancouver in addition to their home in Tucson.

The Peachin homes are filled with artifacts Mary has collected during her world travels. The collection is “cultural, ethnic and maybe a bit morbid,” she observes. It includes such diverse items as a Greek orthodox icon. But probably the most unusual treasure is a skull rack (although it has a coconut rather than a skull on it!). Of her collection Mary says, “it doesn’t matter to me what it is, as long as it isn’t new and wasn’t made for tourist consumption.” The walls in Mary’s office hold her numerous awards – including a national award from United Way, presented by Gerald Ford at the Kennedy Center in 1987. She also has received the Tucson’s Woman of the Year Award (1981), and the U of A Alumni Association’s Distinguished Citizen Award (1992).

A native Tucsonan, Mary’s parents owned Levy’s department store. “I started working for my dad (Leon Levy) as a stock girl when I was about 13 or 14,” she remembers. She received a B.A. at Tulane and her M.P.A. at The University of Arizona. Over the years she has pursued a variety of careers. “I’ve been an adoption caseworker, aviation consultant, and I owned an art and framing business for 15 years.” But, she confesses, “I’ve never been so busy or had so much fun as right now.”

This winter, Mary went scuba diving in the Dutch Antilles (Saba, Statia, St. Kitts), Thailand, and Mona Island off Puerto Rico, and she traveled to Portland and Vancouver. Her 2004 plans include a trip to the Bahamas, as well as, “grizzly bear viewing in British Columbia. I also want to do more salmon fishing and go fly fishing for trout in B.C.” A bicycle trip in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick is also is being planned. “I may not look it, but I am a gym rat. I work out every day,” she says. “If for some reason I don’t get my work out, I feel I’ve been deprived. I try to focus on staying fit.

Ten years from now, I hope I can be doing the same things. Upon returning from some trips, I’ve been known to mutter, ‘Phew, I’ve defied death once again.'”