To fully comprehend the career of Peter Waddell ’68 of Ottawa, Canada, you must disregard any preconceived notion that scuba diving primarily involves crystal clear water populated with colorful fish. He will tell you otherwise. In fact, after a distinguished career as a marine archaeologist that involved 3,500 dives, he chooses to fly-fish and hunt, not dive, as part of his retirement.
Waddell worked for the Canadian Parks Service, directing excavations and surveys of underwater historic artifacts and shipwrecks until his retirement eight years ago. One of the most famous sites he worked on—featured on a National Geographic cover—was a 16th century Basque whaling excavation on the Canadian Labrador coast in the Arctic. It was the largest archaeologist diving project ever undertaken in North America.
“As a result of coverage by National Geographic, Scientific American and others, along with ongoing research and a five-volume report, it became the world’s first underwater UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013,” he says.
Waddell was responsible for all technical aspects of the diving, including disassembly and raising of the ships and boats, and research into the ship components like pumps, rudders and steerage. Helping with research and cataloging the artifacts were also aspects of the job.
“In total, we logged 14,000 hours underwater at that site,” he says. “By comparison, the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor required about 1,000 hours of diving.” He spent five months at the Arctic site every year from 1978 to 1986 away from his wife Rosalind and their three children.
Waddell would operate heavy equipment underwater to disassemble the ships. The frigid water temperatures required a hot-water wet suit with an umbilical attachment. “It was a lot of cold, hard work, and sometimes you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he says. “It was far from glamorous.”
Waddell also consulted at sites in England, France, Bermuda, Mexico and the United States. One year, he finished at the Basque site in September and then left for Portugal to work on shipwreck disassembly in the Azores.
At North Central, Waddell was a physical education major and football player and still holds the College record for the longest punt—90 yards. “Attending North Central was such a broadening experience,” he says. “The professors I had influenced me and I remember those years really fondly.”
He earned a master’s in education and physiology from Southern Illinois University and pursued his hobby of scuba diving. A summer job with the Canadian Parks Service as a diver derailed plans for a doctorate; he joined the organization in 1969 when it began organized efforts to recover shipwrecks. “I had no formal training in underwater archaeology, but back then, no one did,” he says. “We learned as we went and our work formed the basis for graduate programs in underwater archaeology.”