Very few people can hold their breath for ten minutes. And it’s a reasonable assumption that most of those who can are free divers.
Free diving is a remarkable, ancient activity, more superhuman skill than sport. It can also be dangerous. Those who practice it risk attacks of claustrophobia or blackouts. With the right training and years of experience, these risks can be offset and the freediver can experience the undersea realm in a way most of us can only dream of.
Fortunately we have people such as Hanli Prinsloo—speaker, writer, conservationist and ultimate free-diver—to describe the experience for us. In her many years of free diving, she’s formed an unshakeable bond with the oceans and the creatures that inhabit its mysterious depths.
Where it all started
To reiterate: freediving is no cakewalk. You descend into the briny depths as deep as a 40-story skyscraper is tall, all while holding your breath. So how does someone create a life revolving around this feat, a globe-trotting existence swimming with turtles and humpback whales?
“Ever since I was a little girl I was fascinated with being underwater,” Hanli explains. “I love the sense of silence and weightlessness.” Born and raised in South Africa, it was actually in Sweden where Hanli discovered free-diving after a chance meeting with an instructor. Following one-on-one mentoring, Hanli became passionate about the sport and started to compete.
“Free-diving is much more of a mental sport than a physical sport,” Hanli explains. “Of course, you have to be physically in shape and do the right kind of training like any other sport, but in free-diving, it’s very, very clear that if you’re not mentally in the right place, you won’t be able to dive.” Meditation and her yoga mat are central aspects of her preparation. “There’s so much around finding stillness and being able to be quiet in your mind, having that singularity of focus and thought. A lot of it is actually just stretching to increase the lung volume, to create a kind of muscle that isn’t oxygen hungry, like yoga or swimming.”
She’s quick to add that the greatest aspect of free-diving, besides the artistry involved, is the opportunities it creates. “Through my free-diving, I get to travel and experience amazing oceans throughout the world. But what leaves the greatest impression is not always the places I’ve been but the animals I’ve seen. I think people assume that there would be some kind of animosity from animals towards us, but in my experience, it’s not been that. From swimming with sperm whales in Sri Lanka and whale sharks in Mexico, to playful dolphins in Mozambique and all the turtles we got to meet in Petit St. Vincent, for me it really is about the animal interactions.”
Weightless and adrift on the currents, few experiences can compete with coming face-to-face with all manner of marine life in its natural environment. “Swimming with big animals underwater is remarkable,” Hanli says. “It’s like being on safari, but you get to walk with the animal and have eye contact and really become part of the picture. Which is not often recommended on land! Swimming with these big animals is extremely humbling – it reminds me of the connection we have with the planet and the natural world around us.”