View Full Version : Free-diving with Tanya Streeter: The Big Blue experience

11-06-2010, 01:30 AM

Inspired by the film 'The Big Blue', Charles Starmer-Smith takes the plunge in the Caribbean with the free-diving world record holder Tanya Streeter.

Just concentrate on my chest," says the blonde-haired, bikini-clad mermaid sitting in front of me. With my wife looking on, I try not to look open-mouthed, but as her diaphragm expands, then her lungs, filling with up to six litres of air, it is difficult not to.

As far as free-diving tutors go, Tanya Streeter who defied all her male rivals to set some 10 world records and was once described by Sports Illustrated as "the perfect athlete" takes some beating. And as for places to learn, Amanyara the luxurious Aman resort on Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos is not too shabby, either.

It was on this Caribbean island that Tanya set her world record dive of 525ft (160m) on a single gulp of air in 2002 and where, eight years later, she has returned for a fortnight (to coincide with the peak of whale migration season) to teach, talk and inspire the guests.

I have long been captivated by Luc Besson's The Big Blue, the story of two friends who push each other to ever greater free-diving depths a story told with wonderful underwater cinematography. I think it is the purity and accessibility of the sport that most appeals. From the ancient Greek spear fishermen and pearl divers of the Middle East and Orient to the urinatores, the marine war unit of the Roman Empire, it has always been about you, your lungs and the big blue. Anyone with access to water can have a go.

But I feel privileged to be learning from the best. First, how to use my diaphragm to maximise my lung capacity, for we use only a fraction of our capability; then, how to regulate my breathing and lower my heart rate Tanya's drops to as little as 10 beats a minute when she dives. I listen intently as she explains how we all have a "mammalian dive reflex", an instinctive response to cold water that triggers a series of protective physiological changes that can help you achieve the above.

But as we put this into practice, with a series of underwater breath-holds in the pool, I realise that defying the need for air takes serious willpower as well as a willing student.

I try to distract myself from oxygen cravings by reciting song lyrics, without much success. Matter defeats mind and each time I resurface with remorse that I have not held on for longer. A shade over two minutes 40 seconds is my best (compared with Tanya's astonishing record of six minutes 17 seconds). But she seems encouraged by my progress and when she signals that there is time for one last effort, I vow to make it count.

"Try imagining something as simple as walking around your house," she says, as we go through the breathing exercises. "And remember: your body telling you it wants to breathe is a natural reflex, but it doesn't mean you need to."

With Tanya next to me, I take my last breath and sink into the warm saltwater pool, closing my eyes as I roll forward to float face down.

In such exotic surroundings, taking a journey back to the domesticity of south-west London is the last thing on my mind. But this Roedean-educated girl knows a thing or two about free-diving. So home it is.

I start in the kitchen: the pale wooden cupboards, the washing-up undone, the leaning tower of papers, the empty wine bottles. I glance out the window: the new tool shed, the grooved decking that has seen better days, the flower bed dug up by my horticultural nemesis, the ginger cat from next door.

I feel the first pang for air, but shut it out. Then it's the sitting room: the wedding photographs on the dresser still waiting for an album, the guitar with the broken string, the coffee table covered with sports sections (his), fashion supplements (hers), laptop, iPhone the trappings of 21st-century living on terra firma.

My lungs are beginning to ache now. I twitch and shudder. I really want to breathe.

Instead, I climb the stairs, past the discarded coats I need to make this journey last. But I'm already at the spare room, where my Scott racing bike (which I stubbornly refuse to put outside) takes pride of place.

I flick my left index finger, as agreed, to let Tanya know I'm still OK, despite the burning sensation spreading across my chest.

Next, the bedroom: a pile of unread books, my wife's jewellery hanging off the mirror, on the bed, the latest discarded outfit ("I work in fashion, you don't understand!").

I begin to swallow involuntarily, my body convulsing now from the craving for oxygen. But it doesn't need it. Apparently.

I rush into the bathroom: the shelves of products and perfumes, the loft hatch still unpainted. But that is it. The tour is over.

Flicking my finger for the last time, I try to hold on. Ten more seconds? Five, then? It's no good. I need a bigger house. I need bigger lungs. I need to breathe.

I reach out for the steps and Tanya helps me resurface.

"Don't speak. Just breathe," she says calmly, as my wife, Katie, recoils at the sight of my blue lips and ashen face. I'm shaking, but as my lungs fill with sweet oxygenated air, the colour returns to my cheeks and I feel strangely euphoric.

"So?" I gasp.

"Four minutes and three seconds," she says, in an accent that drifts from the lilt of the Cayman Islands (where she grew up) to clipped public-school English with the occasional Texas drawl (she now lives in the US with her English husband, Paul). "Pretty darn good for a first go. You're ready to go free-diving."

The following day we wake to howling winds and a swell that sends waves crashing spectacularly on to the white sands of Malcolm Beach. Diving will have to be delayed, but there are worse places to be left high and dry.

Despite the floor-to-ceiling windows, Amanyara's elegant dark-wood pavilions offer the privacy that its wealthy guests crave, while the staff's hands-off style puts everyone at ease. Tearing ourselves away from the day beds that flank an infinity pool fashioned from volcanic rock, we take the opportunity to explore the 38 square miles of the island.

Bouncing along unpaved roads, we head south to the turquoise waters, myriad cays and mushroom-like islets of Chalk Sound National Park, before winding past the private villas clustered around Discovery Bay, Cooper Jack and Turtle Tail. We continue past the sprawling Leeward Marina development, before heading west to Grace Bay, where a series of luxury hotels and condominiums look out on the famous five-mile stretch of golden sands.

Away from this Americanised and somewhat sanitised tourist strip are places such as the Conch Shack, a sand-between-your-toes eatery that gives a taste of local cuisine and culture. Conches are farmed in the shallows, then cleaned, fried and served with a minimum of fuss and maximum taste, and accompanied by dangerously strong rum punch.

Given the rate of residential development on "Provo", however, true Caribbean colour is hard to find. The island has many similarities with Grand Cayman, where Tanya grew up. Both are blessed with fine beaches, abundant reefs and wonderful climates, but they are pan-flat and overly reliant on foreign tourism (and, in Cayman's case, finance).

Tanya's first foray into the world of free-diving was during spearfishing trips with friends in Cayman. After proving remarkably adept at collecting the fish the others could not recover, she was invited to a free-diving workshop and, despite being the only female among a "sea of beards and biceps", she never looked back.

Six years later, clad in her trademark silver suit, she plummeted 525ft into the deep off Providenciales' north shore a depth that no human had ever managed in a single breath. It thrust her into the spotlight, on to magazine covers and into the hearts and minds of Turks and Caicos people. The government, thrilled at the publicity, even featured her on a set of stamps the first living person other than royalty to be accorded such an honour.

But she has earned that seal of approval. That night Tanya regales guests with stories of her exploits, her encounters with dolphins and whales and the freedom of diving shorn of tank, weights, noise and bubbles. But there is also the pain. On her record-breaking dives, her lungs shrivel to the size of small fists, the pressure on her ears is excruciating and her chest fills with blood to prevent her rib cage caving in.

Free-divers talk, too, of the moment that they reach the point of no return. Contrary to reports at the time, which described her blowing euphoric kisses to sea as she reached 525ft below, Tanya admits that her overriding feeling was of the sadness her family and friends would experience if tragedy struck. There was no panic, just a calm acceptance that she might well not have the breath to make it back to the surface. Somehow she did.

This is something that Jacques, one of the main characters in The Big Blue, touches on in a scene where he explains to his girlfriend what drives free-divers. "Do you know what you're supposed to do, to meet a mermaid? You go down to the bottom of the sea, where the water isn't even blue any more, where the sky is only a memory, and you float there, in the silence. And you stay there, and you decide that you'll die for them. Only then do they start coming out."

But before we all switch to the snorkelling or stretching classes that she also offers, Tanya dispels the sport's death-defying image. "People who think that free-diving is life-threatening misunderstand the sport," she says. "It is entirely life affirming."

The next day, after the storm had passed, I am not feeling firm about anything as I bob up and down, miles out to sea, struggling vainly to put on my giant fins. My wife, Katie, who has a deep-rooted phobia of deep water, looks on with amusement. She has sensibly stayed in the boat.

Tanya, meanwhile, has just glided effortlessly down to the sea floor with a couple of dolphin-style swooshes of her monofin. Hands raised above her head, she swoops and dives with languid, balletic movements through the turquoise waters, the fish following in her wake. After what seems like an eternity, she sweeps back to the surface. It is breathtaking stuff, yet she is barely out of breath. Follow that.

With free-diving, thankfully, there is no danger of suffering "the bends" by resurfacing too quickly, for in my first attempts I forget everything I have learnt. I splash frantically downwards, then rocket back barely half a minute later, utterly spent. But gradually I begin to relax, keep my heart rate in check and my finger off the panic button (until I catch a glimpse of the silver underside of the speedboat high above me). And, gradually, I understand.

After a big gulp of air I head down to the sea bed with long strokes of my fins. As I descend, a shoal of silvery fish gathers around me, touching my wet suit, inquisitive and unafraid. It is not just the lack of constrictive scuba tanks and weights that feels liberating, but the silence. Without the bubbles and the "Darth Vadar-esque" breathing that scares off all but fellow divers, only my heartbeat is audible.

I sweep along the sea floor, some 60ft below the surface, stopping for a closer look at coral, reef and flora, and reaching out for handfuls of sand and letting it drift between fingers. An old wreck the remnants of a sub-aqua challenge on a wacky French game show now doubles as a makeshift reef for schools of tropical fish.

My senses feel heightened and my appreciation of my environment is greater, and for a while I just float in the deep, enjoying the sensation and the silence. Reluctantly, as my lungs provide a gentle reminder that more oxygen is due, I begin my return to the surface.

As I do, two figures descend from above, one with a familiar grin etched across her face. Tanya has not only managed to coax Katie out of the boat and into deep water, but and I have to blink again into free-diving.

For me the Big Blue experience has been transfixing. For Katie, and her attitude to the ocean, it's been transformative.

The Publisher
11-06-2010, 08:08 AM
I interviewed Tanya last year......

11-06-2010, 05:18 PM
Just concentrate on my chest," says the blonde-haired, bikini-clad mermaid sitting in front of me.

Some photos would help with this! I really want to concentrate on her chest.