We at Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine would like to congratulate Gene Peterson as our latest guest writer. An accomplished wreck explorer, historian, speaker, instructor, and business owner, Gene is a man who wears many hats, and who has made significant strides in surfacing the deep history of New Jersey shipwrecks. Gene has over 40 years of experience in these fields, and we look forward to sharing his stories and expertise in future editions.
By John Tapley
Gene started his lifelong fascination with diving as a teenager, and after moving to New Jersey in 1972, this passion extended to exploring the Garden State’s plethora of shipwrecks. During college, he worked under acclaimed pioneer diver Norman Lichtman, and managed one of Lichtman’s dive shops in Ocean City. After graduating, Gene set his sights on teaching scuba, which intertwined with his love of wreck diving. Today he represents a vast curriculum spanning over 40 years, and along with teaching the fundamentals of wreck diving, he instructs in related topics including artifact care and presentation, such as polishing brass.
Gene has unveiled an abundance of hidden treasures resting in watery graves – practically everything, including the kitchen sink. In his time, he has identified dozens of wrecks, including the S.S. Miraflores off Cape May in 2007.
“It’s almost unending but every time you discover a wreck, it’s fascinating,” says Gene. “I discovered gold on a shipwreck in the early ‘80s, and that was fantastic: it was the first time anyone found gold coins off the New Jersey coast… an exciting dive just for the discovery. I’ve found everything from silver bowls to chalices to bells.”
Gene’s work in recovering lost artifacts has been a beacon for local diving organizations and facilities, which highlight New Jersey’s maritime history. He has worked closely with the New Jersey Maritime Museum of History as a lecturer, and has routinely contributed treasured pieces for display.
“Gene is a very knowledgeable diver and instructor – one of the old timers [who] is safety conscious,” says New Jersey Maritime History Museum Executive Director Jim Vogel. “He’s been a great friend to us. We’ve had him do some presentations, which are always fully booked: everyone’s gotten to know who he is, and they look forward to his talks.”
“He has three cases in the museum filled with wonderful stuff that rotates each year: old clay pipes, wood, deadeyes, a World War II gunsight from a freighter, and down to the fuel tanks,” Vogel continues. “It’s phenomenal.”
In 2017, Gene participated in a shipwreck exhibit at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society, and returned this year as the show’s main presenter: displaying his findings from the Cape May area, and sharing the critical historical context that surrounds them.
“It helps people understand there’s more history offshore than there is on land,” says Gene. “The difference is that you can go out and touch, see, and feel that history: not just through a museum but through what a diver sees when he makes these discoveries.”
Throughout the summer of 2018, Gene established a shipwreck exhibit at the society’s museum, which was met with praise and aplomb from a record-breaking number of attendees. On November 29, during a society dinner, his longstanding drive for promoting and preserving Cape May County’s maritime history was honored, and he earned the organization’s 2018 Heritage Award.
“When the exhibit opened, it was one of our largest; people from all ages came from surrounding states. There’s such an interest in what he has and what he does that our attendance has increased dramatically,” says Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society Executive Director Donna Matulucci.
“Gene’s a rockstar and a great storyteller: he makes it fun and puts a spin on it that keeps people spellbound,” she continues. “There’s so many people who come in who want to get to know him and what he does. That sense of camaraderie is amazing.”
In addition to sharing the splendor and excitement of wreck diving with local groups and museums, Gene is an entrepreneur, and has operated his business, Atlantic Divers of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, since 1986. Atlantic Divers serves as a hub for divers local and abroad who, like Gene, have an itch for wrecks that demands to be scratched; and he extends these trips to a wide swath of locations beyond New Jersey.
“We’ve been unique over the years because almost 100 percent of our diving is shipwreck diving. We search and look for wrecks from Florida to New Zealand, and on four boats that run off the New Jersey coast. There’s considered 5,000-plus shipwrecks off the coast… within 15 miles off the ports, there’s [over] 100 shipwrecks. Over the years, we’ve averaged about 100 trips per year, and we’ve trained thousands of wreck divers.”
Gene Peterson is a diver driven by determination and talent and is not content to keep these submerged secrets to himself. For him, the opportunity to spread his passion is worth even more than gold coins.
“The best part of these trips has always been sharing the experience with new divers and friends, and getting them excited and hooked. I’ve given away hundreds of artifacts over the years, or have helped people get them, so I can be part of a team.
“When people start scuba diving, they think, ‘I wish I could discover treasure but I’m never really good.’ It’s all within reach of being there: the more you dive and the more opportunities you take advantage of, the more you’re going to be able to go out and understand what you’re looking at. If I can get other people to understand how much history and adventure are out there, it provides an opportunity to get people to go out and dive.”
Join Gene and his adventures in upcoming editions of Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine!
For more details on Atlantic Divers, visit www.njwreckdivers.com. For information on the New Jersey Maritime History Museum and Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society, respectively, visit https://njmaritimemuseum.org and www.cmcmuseum.org.