Hanli Prinsloo: ‘We’re fostering a new generation of ocean guardians’

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As a champion freediver, Hanli Prinsloo knows a thing or two about the extreme importance of protecting our oceans. After hosting an evening of yoga, breathwork, lung expansion and ocean inspiration for the Conduit community, Hanli spoke to us about the meditative power of freediving, her work with underprivileged coast communities and her memorable encounter with a blue whale.

You’ve previously said that ‘Freediving is sport for the mind’. What do you mean by that?

I’ve often found myself as a freediver grouped together with various extreme sports personalities, which never really made sense to me. Freediving is the opposite of an extreme sport, it can better be described as a deep meditation that requires certain water skills and flexibility. It’s far more about what is going on in your mind when you are holding your breath and spending time underwater than it is a physical feat. Our body demands ongoing breathing and when we hold our breath – on land or underwater – we challenge this reflex and it goes from the physical to the mental, a mind over body control.

How can the techniques and practices used for freediving help people in their lives out of the water?

Mental strength is a popular term that is as elusive as it is attractive, along with resilience and some other personal development strategies. I have found breath work and the exploration of apnea (the cessation of breath) to be one of the most immediate ways to hone this mental strength.
The softer side of this is the practice is learning how to breathe properly and deeply and of course being able to increase ones’ lung volume allows for more oxygen for everything you do!

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Tell us about a favourite freediving memory.

One of my best memories is meeting the greatest of the greats… the blue whale.

‘Pfhoooo’, she blows… and a little closer, ‘pfhoooo’… Now she is so close I can see her shape under the surface and her inhalation rattles the water between us. With my monofin on I hope to be fast and familiar enough to have a moment with her. I breathe slowly and calmly, my excitement supressed in my need to keep my heart rate low and my energy still. I want her to like me. Bend my body, duck dive down, sink my monofin in under the water and swim down, down, down…

She’s taken her last breath and is starting to descend. I watch her perfect lines come towards me. Does she know I am here? Of course she does, I answer myself. Nothing happens in her ocean that she does not know of. She is right below me now, larger than anything I have ever imagined; she fills the ocean below me, blocks out my view, becomes the sea. Slowly turning on her side she looks at me, a large eye that seems small in her huge head. What does she see? A creature with a piece of fibreglass strapped to her feet to reach depth, a small mammal not at home in this vast blue, a new friend with only good intentions? Or does she know that I am of the species that ruthlessly hunt her kind?

Far too soon our meeting is over and her powerful kicks send a wall of water towards me and I twirl like a leaf in the wind. I have met a blue whale.

What do you see as the greatest threat to the oceans today?

I believe the greatest threat facing our oceans is the immense and expanding disconnect between humans and nature. We live in a state of denial regarding the challenges facing our magnificent planet, choosing to ignore threats such as climate change (and ocean acidification) overfishing, plastic pollution and others. It’s not these things that can ultimately result in the death of our oceans and planet as we know her, but our inability to care enough to change our behaviour.

What inspired you to create the I AM WATER Foundation? What’s its mission?

My own experiences spending time in and underwater and the very, very deep love I feel for the ocean and her creatures is what propelled me to start I AM WATER as a vehicle to share ocean experiences with others. The I AM WATER ethos is that people protect what they love – our mission is to create opportunities for people from various different walks of life to experience the ocean in an awe-inspiring transformational way and become part of the change.

We are especially passionate about working with youth from underprivileged coastal communities – for many children and youth along the South African coastline, the thought of the ocean conjures feelings of fear, doubt or unattainable joy. The communities we work with live walking distance to the ocean but have little to no real experience beyond the beach. Our School Workshops are two full school days spent at the beach practicing yoga-inspired stretching & breath work & mindfulness, learning about the marine ecosystems and ocean challenges, the human body’s unique adaptation to being underwater and exploring the intertidal zones and rock pools with marine experts. The highlight of the workshops is the time spent snorkelling. As eyes open underwater we ignite a sense of ownership and love, fostering a new generation of ocean guardians.

What’s one thing that you wish everyone knew about the ocean?

I wish everyone knew how incredibly fragile something so unbelievably vast can be. The ocean feels so incredibly powerful, but we hold her in our hands.

To learn more about I AM WATER, visit their website. To stay up to date with Hanli’s ocean adventures, check out her website or follow her on Instagram.