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A plastic Ocean by Michaela Cordes | 3rd March, 2017 | Personalities

She is a modern mermaid who broke world records. Tanya Streeter was 29 years old when she took one deep breath and dived 160 meters into the waters off the Turks & Caicos Islands and came back up again without the help of any scuba apparatus. A true sensation in the maledominated extreme sport of freediving. Now her deep love for the sea is the inspiration for her latest project: saving our oceans from plastic pollution.

“When I was a child, my playground was the sea. I felt cared for by the ocean – it was my safe place.” Tanya Streeter

There’s almost something poetic in the way Tanya Streeter glides through the water like an elegant sea creature. Her skin-tight suit shimmers silvery and her feet are wedged in a monofin as she dives effortlessly past a humpback whale and its young calf. The unusual athlete has done some risky adventures for various BBC documentaries. She has had feisty reef sharks nibble her fins, freedived deep into Belizes’ daunting Blue Hole and spent a week in the African bush. Fear is a feeling Tanya Streeter does not seem to know – at least not when it comes to wild animals: “I’m much more concerned about plastic waste destroying our oceans!”

More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of it for single usage only. Eight million tons find their way into our oceans by way of rivers and streams. Once there, weather conditions, salt water and sun make it brittle and turn big pieces into dangerous microplastics that soak up toxins like miniscule sponges. Marine animals mistake this so-called plastic smog for plankton, eat it and as a result, the dangerous toxins ultimately make their way into our food chain. This is the core message of the new documentary A Plastic Ocean produced by British filmmaker Jo Ruxton over a period of more than eight years – for which Tanya Streeter is an on-camera lead, driven by her passionate support as patron of The Plastic Oceans Foundation. She can be seen in various scenes, like investigating the ocean floor with a marine biologist to determine the volume of plastic trash with the help of a robotic submarine. Some of the footage in the film is quite difficult to watch: seabirds facing an agonizing death because they cannot tell the difference between food and bits of plastic, a dead whale having large pieces of plastic sheeting cut out of its stomach. “The sad reality is that although people will get upset seeing the animals die, many will only change their behavior if their own health is at stake. And it is!,” says Streeter, as we sit drinking tea in the kitchen of her home in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two children. The American-Brit-Caymanian was born and grew up in the Cayman Islands, where we meet again a few weeks later for our photo shoot.

“I learned a lot while filming, and it helped me change my habits.” Tanya Streeter

When you think about what you learned from A Plastic Ocean, what facts shocked you the most? The statistic that in the last 10 years we produced more plastic than in the fifty years before. That according to the Container Recycling Institute, 100.7 billion plastic bottles were sold in the U.S. in 2014, which is 315 per person. Or that there are places like Tuvalu, the Polynesian nation of reef islands and atolls, which until 1978 was a tropical paradise, but turned into a nightmare. It’s heartbreaking. Many of the imports arrive wrapped in plastic and there’s no way to get rid of it. A shocking portion of the main island is a giant (and growing) pile of trash, and people are dying of cancer and having reproductive problems because plastic toxins are in their food source and they use the plastic as cooking fuel.

What convinced you to become involved with the film project? When I met the producer, Jo Ruxton. She asked me if I would be a patron for the foundation and I immediately said yes. Maybe that’s what my talent for freediving was good for in the end, making it possible to make people aware and ultimately make a difference to the health of our oceans. I worked passionately on the film and learned a lot in the process.

When you were still following your career as an extreme athlete, did you notice how contaminated our oceans are? Oh yes, I did. Growing up in the Cayman Islands I cannot remember finding a plastic cup or straw on the beach. Later, as a teenager, when I saw some plastic on the seabed I would dive down and get it. I remember going scuba diving and cleaning up as much as I could. Living on an island set me up for looking at the world as a whole.

How has working on the movie affected you or even changed your life? My husband Paul and I now always wash out our ziplock bags and reuse them. We have also changed our shopping habits and only buy fruit and vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic. We are happy to spend more money to avoid it. I no longer feed my children from plastic, either. But most of all, the film really influenced my daughter. She watches closely what we do and use at home. I showed some clips of the movie and gave a little talk at her school, and, for about a month, I was bombarded with calls and emails from the other parents: My son won’t let me wrap his sandwiches in plastic anymore, my daughter won’t let me use plastic bags. It’s amazing to see how children instinctively seem to get our message, and understand the importance of it more easily than we adults do.

What was your own childhood like? I had a very idyllic upbringing. My parents moved to the Cayman Islands independently, my mother coming from England in 1966 and my father from the USA. They met and got married in 1969, and had me and my older brother. My father owned a dive business, he was the first to open a dive shop on the waterfront. I spent all my free time outside, the sea was my playground until I went away to boarding school in England at age nine. I remember in those days how I wouldn’t cry so much when saying good-bye to my mom, but looking out of the airplane window as we took off, the tears started flowing when I had to say good-bye to the sea.

You didn’t discover your talent for freediving until you were in your early twenties – how did you discover this unusual ability? I was 24, home again and newly married after university. I had gone spearfishing with a couple of friends. They would shoot something and I would dive down to help retrieve it. “Not bad for a girl,” the boys said, laughing. They were all freedivers too, it’s one of the oldest extreme sports and originally came from spearfishing. They told me I should take a freediving course because I could go way deeper than any of them, and the legendary freediver Pipin Ferreras was on the islands doing a clinic. I went, and was the only woman. They gave me a weight belt and a computer. It was the first time I went down with equipment to see how deep I could go rather than to pick up something from the ocean floor. When I came up again, I had done 30 meters, a sensation because none of the other participants had gone deeper than 20. That evening, Ferreras called and asked me to train with him to beat the American record – 50 meters. At first I didn’t want to and said: are you crazy? But he kept calling back and eventually I got addicted to the challenge and learned that the more I trained, the deeper I was able to dive.

Is it true freedivers invalidate all mathematical and biological boundaries? Yes, you really have to want it badly, and the mental aspect of the sport is just as important as the physical. It’s like a voice in your head saying: go deeper, you can do it, keep trying to go deeper. The hard part is the work you have to do in the gym, the dive is the reward. At the gym, I was a machine, I did everything: cardio, aerobics, anaerobics. I remember doing 17 miles on the Stairmaster at level 10! I was super-super-super fit. After training at the gym for six days in a row, I found that on the seventh day I could dive just that little bit deeper.

“To me, freediving is mainly an emotional experience. But it’s very risky. I decided to give it up when I became a mom.” Tanya Streeter

Freediving is a sport that does not come without life-threatening risks. The first part is the dive. The winner – according to the rules – is the one who returns to the surface completely conscious and able to execute a few “surface protocol” maneuvers. What does it feel like to be 160 meters down on the ocean floor? It is really dark, really peaceful, and all you hear is your own heart beating – very slowly. But most of all it’s an emotional experience because you have arrived at the end of a very demanding process. I am alone with myself and the voice in my head is saying: Tanya – you can do this. You can do this!

Why do you think you were able to gather more mental strength than other people to achieve what you did? Because of my incredible relationship with the sea. I have had a connection to that element ever since I was a child, and the ocean has always been my comfort zone. I feel like I have a symbiotic relationship with the sea that enabled me to respect it in the way the sport demands. Today, as a woman in her early 40s, I know who I am, but back then, I needed to know what my limits were. This achievement, in that enviroment, helped me to see what I was capable of.

You were the first woman to beat mens’ world records in freediving – how did they react to your achievement? Well, look at me, do you think those men took me seriously? They thought I was cheating and that there was no way a woman built like me was going to be able to beat them. We’re all good friends now, but they didn’t start to accept me until after a few world records when, in 1999, I helped with safety diving for a competition in Egypt where, for about three hours, I had to dive every few minutes to between 30-40 meters. I myself never made a big fuss about what I had done, and still don’t see it as such a huge achievement. Somebody once asked my mother what she is the most proud of about her daughter, and her answer was: “That she has remained who she is and doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

For more details, visit www.plasticoceans.org/film 

IssueGG Magazine 02/17
City/CountryAustin/ U.S.
PhotographyMark Seelen