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.”