Champion of the ocean, she is now champion for the ocean. Harnessing her world-class experience and love of water, Hanli founded I AM WATER in 2010, an ocean conservation organisation with a vision to educate and inspire. They focus on working with underprivileged coastal communities, encouraging them to take an active role in looking after the ocean that they live so close to. More than a third of South Africa’s children can walk to the ocean, but less than a third of that number can swim. By creating opportunities for young South Africans, who historically and politically have not had access to the ocean, I AM WATER has two vital functions. The first is social upliftment, by building confidence in these young people, it allows them to fulfil their potential when asked to face their fears. The second is inspiring a sense of connection with the water, which will encourage them to look after it for generations to come. More than 98% of the children who participate in the foundation’s workshops now think it’s vitally important to protect the ocean.
Hanli’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, she has been named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for the work she has undertaken. In 2019 alone, 3,000 children benefited from her workshops – but she does not want to stop there.
“Planet Earth should have been called Planet Ocean,” says Hanli. “The ocean is the only reason we can live here so to tackle climate change we need to take an interest in its wellbeing. It’s the world’s greatest carbon sink.” Hanli worries that people have not connected empathetically enough with this issue. Rather than using scaremongering techniques she believes that ocean conservation should be stimulated through human engagement. “People respond much better to positive things and that’s what we have dedicated our time to at I AM WATER; using more transformative and hopeful experiences to teach the truth. I think that brings greater behavioural change”. A mindset shift is what Hanli believes will bring behavioural changes. This means people caring enough to choose to educate themselves beyond the information that is spoonfed to them. As although subjects such as plastic pollution are an important issue when discussing the ocean, she argues that it’s a simplification of the bigger problem.
“I think that if people understood that our actual survival depends on the ocean then maybe we would behave differently but we are not a very proactive species” says Hanli. With people being forced to stop in their tracks over the last year, we asked whether this time to pause and reflect might have benefitted the climate crisis, even if only from an educational point of view. Hanli is hopeful that the time will have given people a chance to contemplate their behaviour but she has not seen strong enough data to make a decisive answer just yet. “I’m not excited about seeing more masks the next time I go diving in the Cape,” she adds “but people might have had the time to ponder how much they need nature, especially after continual lockdowns. So maybe they will think about what they are able to change in their day to day lives.” She also makes the point that having the time to think, and make more environmentally conscious decisions, is a privilege in itself.