Into the depths: Hanli Prinsloo

Conservationist and ultimate freediver Hanli Prinsloo on experiencing the world hundreds of feet underwater.

Words by Laura Jeacocke | Photography by Ryan Murray

Not many people can hold their breath for 10 minutes. Fewer still are able to dive into the endless depths of the oceans with serene ease. With claustrophobic-induced attacks and blackouts being inherent dangers of free-diving, few are brave enough to even try. But with the right training and experience it opens a new perspective to an underwater world that we still know so little about. Hanli Prinsloo knows this better than anyone. Speaker, writer, conservationist and ultimate free-diver, she has formed an incredible relationship with the sea, the blue lifeblood of our planet, and the creatures that live within it.

Where it all started

To state the obvious, free-diving is no easy feat; plunging hundreds of feet into the depths of the ocean, beyond the equivalent of a 40-story skyscraper, all while holding your breath is near superhuman. So how does someone carve a life from this, travelling the globe, swimming with humpback whales and turtles?

“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, which subsequently led to one-on-one mentoring. Hanli quickly fell in love with the sport and started competing.

“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.” Much of her preparation can be done on her yoga mat and through meditation. “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.”

Hanli is quick to add that the greatest aspect to free-diving, while being an art in itself, is the opportunities it presents. “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.”

Utterly weightless, drifting with the currents, few experiences compare to encountering all manner of marine life in their 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

It’s estimated that less than five per cent of the ocean has actually been explored and that we know more about space than we do about the sea. Even so, detrimental change is evident. “As people are travelling 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 snorkelling, on beach clean-ups, into rock pools, and gives them the chance to connect with our precious oceans.

The interest in ocean health is growing on an international scale. Blue Planet II attracted over 14 million viewers per episode and was 2017’s most watched British TV show; an invaluable contribution in rising awareness towards the Earth’s fragile state. But this is only the start. Marine plastic pollution is a devastating issue, and not enough is being done about it – at a corporate, public and government level.

“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-growing 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, which has partnered with I AM WATER as part of their 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 and meet a variety of aquatic inhabitants, allowing for a new-found awareness of our increasingly endangered oceans. For more information on the island, visit www.petitstvincent.com

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