From dives of danger to flights of fright, Mary Peachin is no shrinking violet.
“I live each day to the fullest – right to the limit,” said the gray-haired grandmother with the self-proclaimed title of Adrenaline Junkie. “I don’t know where that comes from. My parents were afraid to cross the street, but I fly my own plane, sky dive, and bungee jump.”
As well as swim with sharks, dive among saltwater crocodiles, salmon fish alongside hungry grizzly bears – and in her tamer days, pet playful manatees and curious Komodo dragons.
“There’s something beyond the beauty of nature itself that gets my heart pumping,” the 73-year-old said. “But there’s more than curiosity that encourages me to put myself into frightening situations teeming with danger.
“Danger is when you feel you’re not in control of a situation and I try to keep those occurrences to a minimum. I have a healthy respect for the fact that I’m in someone else’s environment … I’m an intruder into their world.”
After working in retail and raising a family, in 1978 she followed her adventure muse into shark-infested waters off the coast of California. It’s been a total adrenaline rush since: crocodile diving in the Solomon Islands; whale chasing in the Galapagos; fly-fishing with grizzlies in British Columbia; swimming with sharks in the Caribbean; tackling tarpon in Costa Rica; keeping a watchful eye out for sea snakes in the Philippines and jellyfish in Micronesia; stalking polar bears in Alaska; and probing underwater caves wherever she can find them.
A member of the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame and a graduate of both Tulane University and the University of Arizona, she is a certified commercial/instrument pilot, an award-winning adventure and travel writer/photographer, and a seeker of her next adventure anywhere in the world.
“Everything I’ve done in my life has sort of fallen in my lap, or at least been serendipitous,” she said.
Her shark experiences can fill a book or two, and have done so – Sharks: The Sleek and the Savage; Underwater Encounters – What You Should Know About Sharks; Scuba Caribbean, and Sport Fishing in the Caribbean (test.peachin.com). It all began in the late 1970s when she went snorkeling in San Carlos, Mexico, and discovered the wonders of a new underwater world.
“Two things I crave in life are the opportunity to go tarpon fishing or diving,” she said. “I can only go so long and I have to put on a wet suit because there is nothing more serene, quiet, and beautiful as being underwater.” After making her mark in the traditional work world, she began to look for something different, a quest that took her into shark territory in the waters off the coast of California.
“I’d been pleasure diving for awhile and thought it would be neat to view sharks, up-close and personal,” she said.
But sharks aren’t the only thing that gets her heart beating faster. Asked to provide details on her most harrowing experience, she’s reluctant to pick just one.
“One time diving in an underwater cave in the Solomon Islands, I learned just how fast I could get out of the water when I found myself in the company of saltwater crocodiles,” Peachin said. “I’d been warned to expect small crocs, but not the 6-foot-long ones that were headed in my direction. Our divemaster had told us the behavior of man-eating crocodiles was unpredictable and urged, ‘When you follow me through a 250-foot-long underwater passageway, please leave me plenty of room to escape.’ ”
The encounter with saltwater crocodiles stays in her memory bank, as does a close call with hundreds of sea snakes in the Philippines and a severe reaction to jellyfish stings in Micronesia. Lest we forget other exploits like competing in the Rough Water Swim in La Jolla, Calif., and long-distance bike rides from border to border in Arizona, or other expeditions where she stalked polar bears and bungee jumped off high bridges in Australia. Another time water currents in the Galapagos Islands were so strong they literally chewed holes in her diving gloves as she got battered back and forth on coral reefs while waiting for a whale shark migration.
“The current was so strong the dive master said we could easily be swept out to sea, so we were hanging on for dear life. The barnacles were ripping our fingers. It was thrilling,” she said.
And it was all for naught as that parade never marched by her observation spot. Ultimately she did find a summer whale shark migration in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the giant mammals surrounded her along with an entourage of massive manta rays and her standard shark swimming companions.
Some of her experiences were not so neat, like a tarpon fishing trip on the muddy Rio Colorado in northeastern Costa Rica. It started out innocently enough as just another day on the water until breakers began crashing over the 16-foot skiff.
“We rode the swells like a roller coaster, tossed about like a wobbly Frisbee, until a 6-foot breaker finally killed the engine – followed by more waves that tossed our gear into the shark-filled waters,” she said. “I silently calculated the wisdom of fighting rip currents and the likelihood of reaching the closest beach a mile away.
“As we were swept powerless into frenzied seas, my shark bravado waned and the ‘stay with the boat’ advice played in my head. We hung onto the submerged skiff in a life-or-death situation made even worse when we realized that soon, there would be no boat.”
Peachin and her guide were saved by another fisherman who managed to haul them safely to shore. “I turned to my guide and said, ‘Get another boat. Let’s go fishing.’ Not too many gringas (American females) come to fish alone at Barro del Colorado, and there’s lots of reasons why they don’t,” she said.
Peachin has found danger both on the water and under it, as well as along-side it.
“One encounter in British Columbia scared me to death. We’d flown into a location to salmon fish and my husband and the others had gone upstream in search of trout when I heard them in the distance yelling something about a grizzly bear headed my way,” she said. “Although we’d been told not to run during a bear sighting, fright and flight took over and I beat feet in the direction of the float plane. From my vantage point on the plane’s pontoon, I couldn’t see if the bear was hanging around, so I spent the rest of my day alone, hanging on to the aircraft – but still fishing.”
Earlier this year she had one of her scariest experiences in West Papua, New Guinea.
“I was dive bombed by an 8-foot-long grey reef shark with an arched back, indicative of aggressive behavior mode,” she said. “He came at me at what seemed like 100 miles an hour and at the last minute, still going at a lightning fast pace, veered away. I was definitely scared. No, make that terrified.”
Any time the adrenalin has a reason to kick in, Peachin is happy. Once while diving in the Turks and Caicos, a fellow diver tapped her on the shoulder and indicated there was something very big following behind them. It turned out to be her first sighting of a humpback whale that swam within inches of the divers before swimming off without a ripple.
Her life on the edge includes a memorable scuba-diving nirvana, a 23-year search for the spotted King of the Ocean, a whale shark the size of a small submarine.
“I waited over two decades for a whale shark sighting, but it was worthwhile, like hitting a home run in the World Series or making a slam-dunk in the NCAA Final Four,” she said. “I can’t think of anything neater than being face-to-face with a h-u-g-e shark with polka dots.”
As to future adrenaline experiences, Peachin said, “As long as I’m healthy, I’ll keep on keeping on and writing about the adventures. When I return from some of the more harrowing experiences, I usually exhale and say, ‘Phew, I’ve defied death once again,’ and I’d like to continue to utter that expression for years to come.”