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Humbling experience interacting face to face with an animal

Interview

Into the depths: Hanli Prinsloo

Conservationist and ultimate freediver Hanli Prinsloo on how the world when your hundreds of feet deep.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RYAN MURRAY
WORDS BY LAURA JEACOCKE

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.”

Ocean conservation

We know more about space than we do about the sea, with the latest estimate that only five percent of the ocean has actually been explored. Nevertheless, we don’t need to look hard to find evidence of detrimental change. “As people are traveling and seeing more of the planet,” says Hanli, “we are also seeing more and more degradation of some of the incredible places people visit in mass to experience. There’s a real need for proper regulation and management of this exploration.”

To help tackle this issue, Hanli founded I AM WATER, a charity focused on connecting people with the seas. She explains it as a way of “changing attitudes to help raise awareness of the state of our oceans; sharing the beauty, the fragility and the facts of our ocean with people in a very personal and connecting way, to really remind us of our role”. Working specifically with underprivileged children in coastal regions, the foundation takes them snorkeling, on beach clean-ups, into rock pools, and gives them the chance to connect with our precious oceans.

International awareness of the health of the oceans continues to grow. Over 14 million viewers tuned into each episode of Blue Planet II, and it was 2017’s most watched British TV show. The documentary series was an invaluable wake-up call for many people, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to educating the global population about the fragility of the globe. And not enough is being done—at a corporate, public, and governmental level—to combat the devastation caused by marine plastic pollution

“It’s heartening to see the shift happening,” Hanli says, “especially in the UK where the effect from Blue Planet II and other campaigns have really shown an impact. The big challenge right now is to broaden the conversation to not only be around marine plastic pollution but the other issues facing our oceans, too.” Marine plastic pollution is only one of these challenges – overfishing and species depletion are also massive factors; issues, Hanli explains, that are “not being discussed to the same extent at all”.

With her I AM WATER Ocean Travel campaign getting ever busier, Hanli still tries to spend most of her time in the water. But, as with all explorers, she has an ever-expanding wish list of ambitions. “I definitely have a very strong draw to explore some of our frozen oceans and I’m actively searching for possibilities to get down to Antarctica and into the Arctic,” she says. “My dream right now is to swim with all the cold water animals – orcas, belugas, and narwhals.” Surely, given the positive impact she is having on the seas, and the places her talent has already taken her, she won’t have to hold her breath too long for the chance.

Hanli Prinsloo is an ambassador for Petit St. Vincent, a private island and Mission Blue Hope Spot located in the southern Caribbean’s Grenadine island chain. The island has partnered with I AM WATER as part of its continued commitment to ocean conservation. Petit St. Vincent holds regular diving excursions with the island’s Jean-Michael Cousteau Caribbean Diving Centre to enable keen environmentalists to observe the reefs, encounter a variety of aquatic inhabitants, and increase the new-found awareness of our increasingly at-risk oceans. For more information on the island, visit www.petitstvincent.com.

For more enchanting underwater experiences, follow @hanliprinsloo and check out her website