Most people can hold their breath for forty seconds, Tanya Streeter can hold her breath for over six minutes.
Diving to the ocean floor on a single breath is an ancient skill among pearl and sponge fishermen, but only in the last 20 years has it become an internationally competitive sport. It requires superhuman levels of stamina and fitness.
Tanya Streeter is in the Caribbean to try and regain one of her lost world records. One of her rivals, recently, reached a depth of 136m. Tanya’s objective for this record attempt, is to reach a mind-boggling depth of 145m.
Dive safety is, ultimately, the responsibility of manager and husband Paul who says “Accidents happen in free diving to people who don’t practise correctly”. Divers can black-out and around 50 divers die each year. The oxygen in the lungs can turn poisonous at depth making the diver feel drunk and the crushing water pressure can perforate vulnerable eardrums.
Free Diving is not often the focus of media attention but the press are interested in a glamorous lady who may be dead within the next few weeks. Tanya is not keen on this type of attention as she would rather the diving made the news and not her apparent sex-appeal.
Her support team of divers need highly specialised diving equipment to operate at the depths Tanya will reach just by holding her breath. During 15 practice dives she will slowly build up her resistance to the pressure and pain of extreme depth. It was after accidentally discovering a talent for breath-hold diving while spear fishing she decided to take up the sport full-time.
Just before one of her practice dives an oceanic white-tipped shark was spotted close to the dive boat. After a few minutes the shark disappeared and Tanya, despite her reservations, opted to proceed with the dive.
Tanya descends on a weighted metal sled at a rate of 3m/s and by the time she reaches a depth of 50m her lungs have been squeezed, by the pressure, to the size of a clenched fist. The pressure on her ears causes intense pain which Tanya likens to having 2 sharp points thrust into the ears. Her ascent from the dive is with an air-filled balloon which can produce rapid pressure changes, so she will swim the last few metres unaided as it is at this depth that the pressure changes can be most severe.
Tanya trains intensively for a record attempt. Dr. Peter Wilmshurst a Diving Physiologist says: “In theory it should be impossible for any free diver to dive beyond about 30m”. Peter Sheard a Biomedical Scientist adds: “For the most part we can take any fit, healthy individual and get them up to four and a half minute breath-hold. To get into the six, seven, and even eight minute breath-holds, you’re looking at a very exceptional person, they’re doing things that we cannot fully explain”.
As part of her training, Tanya attends one of the leading centres for diving medicine in Liverpool, England. She is put in a specially designed tank to simulate the pressures of the dive. She is accompanied in the tank by Frederique, a world-class free diver, for safety reasons. The test dive to 100m is aborted at 80m as this is beyond Frederique’s pain threshold.
5 days before the record attempt, Tanya is diagnosed with a badly bruised eardrum and a sinus infection. This is a major concern for the whole team. Even 2 days before the attempt, Tanya reports pain from her ears when just below the surface of the water.
Only 24 hours before the record attempt and Tanya’s ears are feeling better, so she and husband Paul must decide on what depth they will go for. They decide on a very ambitious 160m or 525ft which, if successful, would make her the deepest free diver, man or woman.
On the day of the attempt, minutes before the dive, Tanya is packing her lungs with as much air as possible when she suddenly slumps forward, unconscious. She has hyper-ventilated, but she recovers quickly and the judges give her permission to go on with the dive.
It’s the worst possible start, but the dive begins and after over two and a half minutes she reaches the depth of 160m. There is a problem, she has lost awareness, nitrogen narcosis has taken a hold. She does not know to release the catch that will return her to the surface. One of the support divers tries to reach her, but is exceeding his safe dive depth limit. Finally, Tanya releases the catch and rockets back toward the surface. She is in danger of passing out, but cannot be assisted as the judges must see her to be conscious for the record to stand.
After an agonising few seconds, she is seen to be fine and the judges confirm the record is good.
Tanya Streeter has set a new world free diving record!
Six weeks after Tanya Streeter set the world record, her rival Audre Mestre tried to break it. SHE DIED IN THE ATTEMPT