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Peter Buzzacott - Diving Scientist and Explorer

Dr Peter Buzzacott is a diving scientist with wide-ranging interests including diving physiology, research in caves, high-altitude diving, occupational diving and diving epidemiology (injuries and fatalities). Peter is a former instructor who now travels extensively, diving wherever his work takes him.

In his own words, Peter’s diving career is described here

In 1992 I was a soldier in the Australian Army and every year they would give us one week to do something adventurous like climb a mountain or compete in an ocean yacht race. If you couldn’t sort anything out yourself then they’d take you trekking in the outback, (you’d basically spend the week marching). The guy I lived with at the time organised a dive course on Morton Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. We borrowed a couple of Army Unimog trucks, loaded them up with kegs of beer, tents and all we’d need for daily barbeques and over we went on the ferry. The local NAUI instructor came over to the island and our eating tent became our classroom, three shipwrecks near the shore formed our swimming pool and a big motor yacht took us diving on the reef. I was pretty much hooked straight away. When I discharged in January 1993 I said I’d like to become an instructor, (with about ten dives in my log-book), so the Army paid for my PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course at Rottnest Island in Western Australia.

Click here to read more of Peter’s diving career.

After that I wandered the globe, diving in Turkey, Thailand, west Wales, wherever I went I dived. In 1997 I met Ben and Sarah at Scapa Scuba and they pretty much lit my fire for really becoming an instructor. Soon after I took a PADI Rescue Diver course at Chesil Beach in South England but winter was coming, the Pound was quite valuable and so I looked abroad for divemaster and instructor courses. By now happily married to Cheryl, the two of us went to South Africa where I took a PADI Divemaster internship, taking boat-loads of divers out to Two-Mile Reef in Sodwana Bay. A PADI Instructor course followed in Bass Lake near Johannesburg, at over 5000 feet altitude. My examiner was Lesley Alexander, who has a PhD in Education, and she especially impressed me with her mastery of the assessment process. During my earlier courses I’d think to myself “hmmm, how would Lesley set-up tomorrow’s training situation?”

Back in Wales, where we were living at the time, I sold my Mazda RX7 and bought a second set of dive gear and a brand-new oxygen kit. Our bathroom tap was dripping so I called a plumber and while he was busy working I sold him a dive course, adding “We’ll have to use your car though, I just sold mine to buy dive gear.” Looking back I was probably out of my depth though I did my best and we only got swept out to sea once, (well, almost!), down at Devil’s Point at the mouth of the River Tamar. Handing over my first PADI Open Water Diver certification I said to Cheryl that I’d found what I wanted to do with my life, and could we move nearer the ocean? Initially I suggested west Wales because of the coral, seal breeding and marine reserves but Cheryl fancied Australia so we sold-up and moved down under (Cheryl is the practical one).

I opened a dive shop and over the next few years made PADI Master Instructor, issuing over 500 diving certifications. Along the way I became a DAN first-aid and oxygen instructor, TDI Advanced Nitrox and Deco Procedures instructor and completed NAS and AIMA Certificates I and II in Maritime Archaeology. Winters were quiet so over the years I also completed Diplomas in Small Business Management, and Outdoor Recreation, and then I was looking for a Diploma of Training but got offered a great deal on a Bachelor of Arts (Training and Development) at Curtin University, so I enrolled. It was fascinating and I made sure all of my assignments were about training scuba divers. Hardly a customer would enter my shop without me asking them to sit a short knowledge test I was constructing, or some other homework. In this period of my life autumns and springs were very busy, until winter cut back teaching scuba. During these two seasons about the only way I could find 35 hours a week for study and run a dive shop was to get up at 4am, put in 2.5 hours before work, then I’d wake Cheryl up and we breakfast, then I’d work 8.30-5.30, get home 6pm and study till 8.30pm, sit with Cheryl in the lounge for an hour before crashing, and that’s how I found five hours per day, 35 hours per week. I graduated in 2003, (with a course average of 83%).

The Director of the Injury Research Centre at the University of Western Australia had heard about my interest in the effectiveness of diver training at reducing diving injuries, so I went for an interview and they offered me candidature for a Master of Public Health degree by research, with double majors in Injury Epidemiology, and Education. Wow, was I busy! So busy, I soon realised I needed to focus on this 50-hours a week, so I quickly shut my shop and sold off all the gear. Over the next two years our savings dwindled, our shoes and car tyres went bald, we stopped eating out, by the time I graduated I didn’t think I could even afford a copy of my own thesis but then I’d invented a pressurised snorkel and just when I needed it most I won $1000 first-prize in the annual University Intellectual Property Awards.

Glad to be finished I spent the summer teaching for my former opposition, a PADI Five Star Centre in Bunbury, Western Australia. David Doolette and I both presented at OZTeK4 and he’d recently finished his PhD in decompression theory, which was the field I was keen to enter, so I asked his advice. He said something along the lines of “don’t wait for an offer, find a desk and carve out space for yourself”. Bearing that in mind I contacted DAN in the USA, asking the Director of Research at the time if I could analyse their Project Dive Exploration data, the world’s largest recreational diving dataset with over 100,000 dives recorded, fifty cases of the bends and, unfortunately, two deaths. Dr Richard “Dick” Vann was encouraging but in the end said he didn’t think it was practical to work on his data in both Australia and the USA. Then John Lippmann from DAN SEAP in Melbourne said he didn’t think I had a strong enough maths background, (we’re still good pals and he was being honest). Trying my best to get a foothold I spent hours and hours searching libraries for every phone book produced in Western Australia (WA) and I researched the history of diving fatalities in WA too. Finally, I clearly showed that the five-year rolling average number of diving deaths was significantly correlated with the number of dive businesses advertising in the Yellow Pages. Chuffed with this discovery I submitted my first proper scientific paper to the SPUMS Journal. Professor Mike Davis, the editor, rejected it, calling my research “bizarre”. Regardless, I was invited to undertake a PhD by three universities, two of which also offered scholarships, so I chose the UWA Faculty of Medicine again, despite a three-and-a-half hours commute each way. Even today I leave home at 5.40am for the train, get to work at 9am, leave at 5pm, and get home at 8.40pm, (a 15-hour work day). Been seven years now, (lucky for me they have a bar on the train).

My thesis looked at the causes of diving injuries and fatalities. After a year I won a five-months DAN internship to go to the USA, which was the best experience I’ve ever had, no question. Dr Vann and his wife were kind enough to put me up at their place while my digs were getting sorted, they leant me their Dodge Avenger sports car for the duration and gave me a couple of young uni students in their twenties to live with in a share house. One of them was Alex from Colorado, who is now among my dearest friends and dive buddies. The work was fascinating, especially at the Duke University Centre for Hyperbaric and Environmental Medicine. Alex has a degree in cell biology, with a special interest in oxygen, so they had him wiring up rat brains and measuring cerebal blood flow under pressure in a little hyperbaric chamber. The rat would get an injection of either Viagra or a placebo and the findings suggested increased cerebral blood flow brings on oxygen toxicity fits at shallower depths and/or sooner, which may have implications for divers taking decongestants before diving with a high PO2. At this stage though, the only thing we know for sure is that rats on a dive trip should stay off the blue pills. My job was to work on the world’s largest study into cave-diving fatalities, which we published in 2009. I’d gotten into cave diving in 2006 and it was rapidly consuming all my spare time.

One of the best things about working at DAN was the opportunity to volunteer for medical experiments. In one experiment for NASA I went to a simulated 30,300 feet altitude in a hyperbaric chamber after just two-hours of deco on oxygen at 10,000 feet, instead of the usual four hours of deco on oxygen, to prove that astronaughts could decompress for space-walks in half the time if they exercised in the air-lock. While I was peddling the bike my sweat felt like it was boiling off me in waves, rolling up and down my body. It was awesome! In a US Navy experiment I rode an exercise bike underwater at 50% of my maximum capacity, for 70-minutes, in a pool inside the hyperbaric chamber pressurised to 40m, before three-and-a-half hours of deco on oxygen, (with air breaks, of course). They’d shoved a catheter through my heart, (actually, when it went through on the second attempt I think I let a drop of wee out), and every now and then someone would depress the syringe taped to my arm and a balloon would inflate inside my pulmonary artery to block-off the blood supply to my lungs while they drew blood from my wrist. Now and then they’d increase my breathing resistance to see how I reacted. I lost consciousness once, probably from shock I reckon, and when I woke up one of the technicians was holding my legs up while the other was prepping a big intra-muscular shot just like in Pulp Fiction. I laid there for a minute or so and got back on the bike, mainly because I was the only Australian they’d had in there and I wasn’t going to let the side down.

A couple of weeks later I could lie straight in bed again so Alex and I bunked off to Florida with the money we’d earned volunteering for experiments. Florida was wonderful! I’ll be back there next year on my fourth visit. In fact, over the five-months internship I made 75-dives in six states, mostly thanks to Alex. We’d settled into a routine: Monday drop off the empty tanks, Tuesday pick them up, Wednesday after work night dives in a quarry, Thursday drop off empties, Friday collect them, and our weekends were dive, dive, dive. Eventually my time ran out and I was heading home. On the very last day my mentor and friend Dr Petar Denoble gave me a DVD with the Project Dive Exploration data on it. They wanted me, a nobody student from Australia, to analyse the world’s biggest study into recreational diving. We published our results in the medical journal Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine.

Back in Australia it was time to collect my own data, so I spent two years driving around WA meeting groups of divers and clipping little yellow loggers onto their BCDs, to estimate their tissue supersaturation levels minute by minute (in dekaseconds, actually). My trusty 1985 Nissan 4WD took Cheryl and I up to tropical Exmouth, we helicoptered out to the Abrolhos Islands, I spent a month 200miles offshore at the wonderful Rowley Shoals, we even went as far south as Esperance on the Southern Ocean where I dived a massive wreck called the Sanko Harvest. This period was really enjoyable for me, cave diving whenever I could get away to Mount Gambier in South Australia, or out to the famous Cocklebiddy Cave in the Nullarbor. Eventually I earned Australia’s highest cave diving certification, CDAA Advanced Cave Diver, I finished my PhD and… you guessed it: went diving, in Lake Titicaca with the Bolivian Navy (I think that’s an Australian altitude diving record actually), in Lake Vouliagmeni in Greece (Europe’s largest flooded chamber), mine diving in Sweden (2-degrees Celsius), back to Florida, even high altitude cave diving in the Tatra Mountains in south Poland, where my good buddy Honzo from the Polish speleo club taught me the French system for exploring sumps. He’s finishing a PhD researching scuba as therapy for quadraplegics.

It is almost Christmas 2011 and I am home in Australia, heading out to the desert again next month for more cave diving in Cocklebiddy, then in February I’m attempting to connect two very deep caves in Tasmania, involving nearly 300m of vertical abseiling with my gear suspended underneath us before solo-diving two sumps. I am nervous but excited, which is normal for me. Bill Oigarden’s cave-diver personality research suggests I am drawn to the unknown. A television production company are filming a test of me diving for a six-part science documentary series about my research diving in caves and now I’ve been invited to join the prestigious Fourth Element Dive Team, some of whom I’ve bumped into along the way.

In short, my twenty years underwater have been a lot of fun and it doesn’t look like it’s ending soon. My take-home message to anyone reading this who wants a career underwater is: just leap-in, do your best and don’t let a few knock-backs get you down. If it’s meant to be then you’ll get there in the end, even if you don’t have a clue where you might end up. Wherever it takes you, a bad day in my office is still better than a great day working in a bank.

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