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Champion of the Ocean

An exclusive interview with Hanli Prinsloo

HOME > JOURNALChampion of the Ocean: an interview with Hanli Prinsloo

In an exclusive interview, True Travel founder Henry Morley spoke to Hanli Prinsloo, freediving champion and ocean conservationist, about how her passion for water forged a path into education for the masses. Her foundation, I AM WATER aims to inspire and educate those who live so close to the water but have not enjoyed access to it, providing them with vital social upliftment and teaching them about the importance of the ocean’s wellbeing. 

All images © Peter Marshall

The key to freediving successfully is the Mammalian Dive Response: a set of physiological responses that override our basic human reflexes when immersed in water. Our body will slow down our heart rate and constrict blood vessels, redirecting blood flow from our extremities to our vital organs. When a diver is subjected to the atmospheric pressure of depth, extra haemoglobin is released by the spleen and boosts the oxygen levels once more, allowing you to ‘freefall’ to the dark depths of the ocean. It is an adaptation which humans share with whales, dolphins and seals but that few know how to tap into.

Whilst this may be a concept that sounds terrifying to most, the art of diving without the support of equipment and reaching ‘freefall’ is a sensation that Hanli Prinsloo, eleven time South African national champion, describes as utterly magical and one of her favourite things about deep freediving. She explains to True Travel’s founder Henry Morley: “The sensation of floating is known as positive buoyancy but at a certain point in a dive you hit negative buoyancy and that’s when it starts. You do not have to kick or pull anymore, you are just dropping, dropping, dropping. It’s the most unbelievable sensation, almost like the ocean is embracing you. It’s the closest humans can get to flying.”

Growing up on a horse farm in rural South Africa, Hanli’s earliest experiences with water were not in the great ocean. Instead her love for water developed whilst playing in the farm dams and rivers. It instilled in her from a young age a deep understanding of the human connection with nature and the wilderness. Hanli did not come across ‘freediving’ until she moved to Sweden to study. What followed were record breaking dives; holding her breath for up to six minutes and reaching dizzying depths of 65m.

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.

A lot of the work that Hanli does with I AM WATER from Cape Town is in and around the magnificent and mysterious kelp forests that line the coast. They remain very healthy, she explains, but they will always need protection. “Let’s not protect them in the same way we are ‘protecting’ land forests though, because we are not really protecting them at all” she muses. Kelp forests around the world are incredibly important, and over the last year True Travel has become directly involved with them for this reason. Henry explains our connection: “We are in the process of establishing a kelp forest off the coast of the UK which our clients can contribute to in order to reforest areas which have been devastated by invasive fishing practices.” Kelp, a type of seaweed, is a vital player in the production of oxygen as well as the sequestering of carbon dioxide, which highlights it’s extraordinary potential to tackle climate change. They can sequester twenty times more carbon per acre than land forests. “I don’t think we understand the sophistication of what we can do with kelp,” Hanli adds. It’s currently used for fertiliser, as well as being incredibly nutritious to eat. “It’s much faster growing than the fastest land plants so harvesting it in a sustainable way is certainly an option but historically we are very bad at managing that so we have to tread cautiously”. We whole-heartedly agree.

Green areas below the surface are so important for driving down ocean acidity and engineering a healthy marine ecosystem. Like terrestrial forests, kelp forests foster an area of extensive biodiversity. Hanli fondly recalls memories of her first dive in the Cape’s majestic kelp forests. “You think it is just this mass of vegetation but as soon as you go down it opens up into these trunks of trees that you can move through, it really is like walking between giant old redwoods.”

On an average dive she will look for the “all-stars” like the small species of shy sharks that have exquisite patterns rippled across their backs, as well as stingrays as large as dining room tables. The ‘interior design’ of the kelp forest is fashioned by bright pink or electric orange urchins decorating the rocks below, interspersed with little spiny starfish.  The odd octopus nestled in amongst it all. The feather worms and nudibranchs start to emerge once you have dived down a little further, dappled beams of sunlight highlighting these creatures that are mind-blowing in colour. “It’s just littered with all these fun little fairytale-like creatures. It really feels that someone who was on some sort of psychedelic trip designed the colours down there. It’s a very special place.”

 “Everyone is moving in three dimensions and at any moment a whale or a dolphin can turn and come within touching distance of you, before gracefully passing by.”

Hanli grew up seeing the big five on safari but she found that underwater encounters with big animals were completely different. When you observe a lion, for safety you have to keep your distance. However, unencumbered by the tanks and tubes of scuba diving, freediving allows you to have a far more intimate experience with the ocean creatures who are not threatened by your presence because there is a sense of familiarity.

“Whales and dolphins are air-breathers, they go down and hold their breath as we do. So when you’re moving and breathing in the same way that they are, there is that immediate recognition. Everyone is moving in three dimensions and at any moment a whale or a dolphin can turn and come within touching distance of you, before gracefully passing by.” These intimate experiences with animals under water have deeply impacted Hanli’s trajectory for her life.

Realising that there was a need to share her passion and knowledge about ocean conservation, I AM WATER Ocean Travel was a natural next step. Founded in 2016 by herself and husband Peter Marshall, this social mission set out to combine sustainable travel and ocean conservation through curated transformative experiences. “On land there is a benchmark of how to do natural experiences sustainably but there is not the same with the oceans.”  Together they have set that benchmark. Signature trips and on-demand one on one instruction, hosted by the couple (to ensure the perfect experience) are some of True Travel’s most treasured experiences if you are spending time in and around Cape Town.

If you want to get involved in the work of the I AM WATER foundation then you can do so using the various links below for further information.



All images © Peter Marshall

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