Appeared in DIVER September 2007

Setting depth records straight
Nina Preisner on her recent Jolanda dive - but do women need to have separate scuba records

Why should women need their own deep-diving scuba records Can we trust reports of abyssal dives when the evidence is flimsy at best Mark Ellyatt was for a time the worlds deepest scuba diver - and after reading this, you may wonder if he still is. As ever, he is ready to court controversy

SO YOU WANNA BE A RECORD-BREAKER That was the immortal tag-line from a classic TV show on which Norris McWhirter and Roy Castle took pains to count the number of tambourines a fat kid could slap in a minute without wheezing, or the number of honey bees from which a sober man could make a beard! Fantastic, compulsive television and, just as in The A-Team, nobody was allowed to get hurt.
Records come in all shapes and sizes, particularly the underwater variety. We have the deepest mammal, the deepest diver with a pet on a Tuesday and, most recently, the deepest woman diver on a wreck in the Red Sea.
Forgive me if Im wrong, but this most recent record-claimant might be doing her sex a bit of a disservice. Men and women are, after all, fairly similarly endowed with ear-clearing and dive-computer-reading abilities.
I suppose a woman claiming a gender-specific overall depth record is still acceptable, as the fairer sex has always been slightly off the mens pace, what with their smaller, er, flippers.
The only sport in which the sexes seem to compete neck and neck is power-lifting. At the last Olympics I marvelled as the not-so-dainty Chinese Ladies wiped the floor with their male counterparts.
Im sure that if their Lycra thongs were swapped for drysuits and twin-sets, they would shatter depth records without needing any eye-liner at all!
Nina Preisner dived to 159.6m on the Jolanda wreck, and I am not knocking her effort, only her claim for record status.
If she had some kind of disability it would be different, but claiming records simply because they pose a challenge for the claimant seems to do the whole bandwagon a disservice.
Lets face it, this duel with the deep is hardly earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things - 159m is 50m shallower than a woman has been already claimed to have been, and many women divers have dived as deep in worse conditions - and several, way deeper.

A RECENT INTERNET DIVING FORUM detailed a bun-fight between the strokes/ chimps and a diving doctor who used medical jargon to support his bizarre notion that women could never dive as deep as men.
Other than some considerations about decompression during menstruation, his statement was Edwardian at best, and he was shot down in flames.
I have been looking at studies carried out by the Diving Diseases Research Centre (DDRC) in an attempt to pin down any differences between the ladies and the lads. These studies appear to confirm that women are moderately more likely to get bent during that specific week of the month when anything they say goes anyway.
Another source tells me that although women turn up at hyperbaric chambers more than men, this could be attributed to lack of ego and a desire to get better with help, as opposed to the male head in sand, itll go away approach.
I have dived very deep with women many times, and trained dozens of female technical divers. While claiming no scientific insight,
I note that many of the bends they experienced occurred during their menstrual cycle, as subsequent chamber interviews revealed. Its food for thought.
Some would say that the Red Sea is the place for practising record-breaking techniques before going for the real deal, perhaps somewhere cooler, with less visibility or more prone to those infernal currents.
Depending on who you speak to, the Jolanda wreckage goes as deep as 210m, but its now a well-flogged horse, and in swimming-pool conditions.
This weeks record-breaker would have a more robust claim if next time she swam around the bridge of HMS Edinburgh (a frosty 240m) following a quick practise-snorkel, perhaps to SMS Baden in the English Channel.
Its only 177m to the sand, but savage currents have caused one or two gurus plans to be shelved over the years. Perhaps Nina could plan for 20 or 30 minutes down there on one of those rebreather gadgets
I had not heard of a specific wreck-diving depth record before I got involved with the Hurds Deep project in the Channel Islands in 2000. There had been reports of a bimble by a US guru, Terence Tysall, on the famous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a Canadian quarry, but that seemed a more noble research bounce dive.
After I dived the Baden, my efforts were depicted as Glory Seeker Claims Dubious Record After Near-Miss In English Channel in American dive comics. I had dived to 180m in the area before, a couple of times with my then-girlfriend Natasha Abels. In both our minds it was a deep but semi-straightforward dive in preparation for something a bit more adventurous.
We had read an article about the song and dance made by another woman after her lucky escape from 159m in a swimming-pool-conditioned cave with infinite visibility and no currents.
We did the dive without too much fanfare and, after a glass of wine made seemingly stronger by the post-dive chamber ride, Natasha decided to claim the Deepest Womans Dive record and take her place in history.

SOON AFTERWARDS, I was contacted by a group of divers asking me to film them claiming a record on the Baden wreck in the same area, complete with a big media circus. I did wonder what would happen if I went a metre or so deeper than them, what with having the camera and all. I neednt have worried.
The experts had some technical issues, and after diving the wreck alone I claimed the record myself. Why not This was the second record with which I had been involved, and I justified claiming this one by reminding myself that the conditions had been fairly arduous (think 2 knot current and black, freezing water).
This wasnt chest-beating - just, I felt, the rewards of preparation.
I believe the Baden wreck dive spurred the whole deep-wreck record-chasing circus, what with wrecks such as the Yamashiro, the Fuso, the Lamoriciere and the Edinburgh all tantalisingly within reach, but as yet undived by self-contained divers.
The Jolanda wreckage joined the list in 2003, but when Grigory Dominik from Poland found the deep portion and described it as a junkpile spread vertically down a reef over 200m,
I moved it to my B-list along with gnome gardens. Some other divers re-discovered the wreck a couple of years later, although the Polish diver was unaware that it had ever been lost!

DEEP-WRECK DIVING may make the odd headline in diving magazines, but the absolute depth record for scuba diving can command column centimetres in tabloids worldwide. If such a stunt coincides with an especially gloomy world event, so much the better.
The risks are high on depth records (death or disability) and the rewards low (hats/T-shirts and an Internet slagging), but at least the burden of proof is fairly lightweight.
Video cameras that work to this depth are thin on the ground, so all thats needed is a modicum of credibility, or a brazen attitude. A history of botched previous attempts can help.
When I returned with video evidence from the Baden dive, and from filming Natasha Abels deepest womans dive, this wasnt enough to appease some armchair experts.
Video evidence has proved hard to come by on many of the deepest scuba plunges. John Bennett, the first man to claim a 1000ft dive, tried but failed. The footage simply showed him descending on a line as if on a night dive, with not a depth-gauge reading in sight.
Its one thing to claim a record, quite another to prove it. Video works only if a calibrated depth gauge is shown at the maximum depth. The picture above shows a gauge that at first sight appears to prove a recent record depth reached.
Until, that is, you realise that the gauge is a £55 bottom-timer that reads 99m maximum in metric or 328ft in imperial. It will never, ever read 221m.
The depth-gauge quandary has haunted many a deep diver. I recall a Nitek 3 computer reading 205m in another magazine article regarding the Jolanda - impressive for a unit that reads to 199m max. Another special production gauge What do you think
Depth gauges able to work in dynamic ultra-high-pressure environments are as scarce as rocking-horse dung. Divers who own these mysterious Russian military spy depth gauges always seem to be those least likely to need them.
Deep divers must decide whether to buy Gucci gauges or become adept at using Photoshop. There were even reports from a recent deep-cave project of divers reeling their depth gauges down below them - coining the new phrase VR3-fishing!
Similarly, cameras and housings that work to sub-300m depths dont end up on eBay every day, and custom-built housings are unwieldy and expensive, though advances have been made with head-mounted equipment recently.
Historically, deep divers have plucked the deepest depth-indicating tag from a downline. The most recent gimmick is to measure the line after the dive, in the hope that it stretched a little or, even better, a lot!
Of course, it is likely to have stretched plenty, as you would expect after placing 100kg of lead at the end of some cheap rope and leaving it dangling, or even buoyed up, for a day or more in the sea.

LET ME EXPLAIN HOW a 400m rope that looks vertical in the water may
only barely touch the seabed in, say 270m of water. In the schoolboy deep-divers world, when you lower hundreds of fathoms of rope over the side of a boat it goes straight down. In the salty sea-dogs world, this is not the case.
Water is affected by currents, both tidal and thermal, and sometimes by localised eddy currents too.
These occasionally move the body of water as a whole, but more usually break it into multiple streams that can travel in quite different directions.
These currents can affect the downline dramatically. In deepwater tidal areas, even at slack the water column moves about like a giant blancmange. Once the tide starts running, the top gets dragged, and this has a corresponding but lesser drag on the deeper reaches.
Most technical divers have jumped in at slack water to find a current perhaps still moving down below.
Imagine this effect at record-bid depths, with these unusual currents all interacting against the shotline. Nothing is predictable, and even the Red Sea and Med are affected to some degree.
So the ultra-deep divers shotline can resemble a giant bow in simple tidal areas in ideal conditions, and in others a zig-zagging ECG read-out, each arc affected by a different tidal direction.
Bends in the line can easily lose 50 or even 100m of vertical length by the time the end is more than 300m from the boat. Skippers will know how they sometimes put double the length of rope down to a wreck so that it will touch bottom when the tide is running.
The longer the rope, the less steep the angle and the less tide buffeting it, but descending 300m of line like this could take 30 minutes!
Putting a 10-ton weight on the line will help to straighten it out and allow better depth measurements, but it will always have a bend if its long enough. And the bigger the weight on the bottom, the more buoyage up top.
This means more of a footprint in the tide and a greater negative effect spread over the entire line.

STRAIGHTER LINES ARE NO EASIER to descend if the tide is running, either - try it yourself. However, a really heavy weight will help to stretch the rope, so may make you look like an even deeper diver if you measure it afterwards!
On descent, the weight of the kit and inertia will make the line appear fairly straight. If it is buoyed and floating, the strain on the diver from currents can be lessened, and this is desirable especially in tidal areas.
But you have less control over where the weight ends up, and its not ideal if you want to land on a seabed.
And an unsnagged weighted line can still be moved around by the tide or even topside weather conditions - sideways, deeper or shallower.
Proper deep-wreck divers have the unenviable task of descending a fixed line in tidal conditions (as all proper wrecks are swept by tides) but this adds an extra challenge, and so reward.
Its my humble opinion that line lengths measured after the dive are irrelevant. On my 313m dive the line was measured beforehand to 320m.
When it was pulled up later, it was 328m long, but I didnt think it was important. Or am I still the king
Since my dive, South African Nuno Gomes has claimed 318m and a few weeks later Frenchman Pascal Bernabe claimed 330m, which he later modified to around 320m.
Free-diving limelight-seekers must now wear transponders to support their claims, and with more and more scuba-divers chasing the free baseball caps and mask-strap sponsorship deals, perhaps its time magazines did a little more to verify what really goes on. Come back Norris and Roy, we miss you!

  • The articles Decompression Sickness in Women: A Possible Relationship With The Menstrual Cycle; A Relationship Between The Menstrual Cycle and Decompression Illness: Is The Evidence Building and Comparative Data From 2250 Male and Female Sports Divers: Diving Patterns and Decompression Sickness are available from

  • Divernet Divernet
    A computer cannot lie when offered as evidence of maximum depth - or can it
    Line set with depth indicator tags ready for a record attempt.
    Mark Ellyatt back from another deep dive.