Hanli Prinsloo — Fierce Ocean Entrepreneur & Freediver
• • • Hanli Prinsloo, founder of I AM WATER foundation and freediving champion, talks with us about the importance of the ocean in helping us find stillness in the mind and the importance of protecting marine life for the years to come.
So, tell me, what made you get into freediving?
Well, I grew up on a horse farm away from the ocean, so it wasn’t an obvious choice, but growing up on the farm definitely gave me a very close relationship with nature and luckily for me, my dad was a horse whisperer. So, a really deep understanding of the animal and human relationship was instilled in me at a very early age. I only came across the sport of freediving when I moved to Sweden to study – which was not an obvious choice, but it was free. I was actually working on a short film when the editor asked me if I’d ever heard of freediving.
I thought, “gosh, nothing here is free… What is he talking about?”, and so he explained to me what freediving was, and it was like a bunch of pennies just dropped for me. Even as a little girl, I’d love to swim in the water and pretend to be a mermaid (my sister and I even had this secret underwater language as kids that we called our ‘Mermaid Language’… Now I realise that it was basically dolphin language). Then, when he explained to me what Free Diving was, I was up for it immediately.
We went out on this rickety old boat into this fjord… It was freezing cold, my wetsuit didn’t fit, and my mask was leaking. But the moment I went underwater and experienced that stillness, I realised this is definitely a sport for me.
As I learnt more about my body in water, and as I explored the sport more, I realised that freediving was more of a lifestyle, instead of a sport, which really attracted me to it. I’m not naturally a competitive person but understanding how much of it was about mindfulness and the human body’s adaptation to water, I just fell in love with it!
I see you have done a lot of mental strength training as a freediving instructor. Can you tell me about a moment where you have seen a significant change in someone’s life/performance through these types of sessions?
Freediving in its essence is a very strong mental strength practice. One of our strongest desires in the human body is to breathe. It literally is what makes us ‘alive’ – that first breath we take. Then, for the rest of our life, we take breath after breath after breath and more often than not, we are not actually thinking about it. The human body is reflexively breathing, so we are reflexive breathers, which means that we don’t have to think about breathing, our body does it for us. That’s relevant because dolphins, for example, are conscious breathers.
Every breath that they take is a choice, and so, the practice of freediving or a breath-hold is when you actually challenge your body. It is telling you one thing “breath, breath, breath” and your mind has to be strong enough to tell your body, “no, you have enough oxygen, this is an early warning and you’re okay”. So, actually understanding that our body can want one thing and the mind can control it is powerful.
We talk about any urges or addictive traits that become a real pinnacle of that. I think probably in a very tangible way, the training I’ve done with big wave surfers have been remarkable to see people’s confidence grow and their lung volume physically grows with their preparation for something like surfing the biggest waves in the world.
Getting a new dimension can actually save their lives. I still get messages on Facebook and emails saying my training gave them the confidence to say, “yes” to these big surfs. Those kinds of responses are so rewarding. But I must say, even the work with people around finding mental stillness through breath work is fantastic to see. Because often we aren’t challenging ourselves by surfing big waves but life itself can be a challenge. It’s important to understand how to have a direct access to stillness, I think that’s a superpower.
I feel like I'm a better person in the water...
The relationship with the Ocean
Tell me about your connection with the ocean and concern for it’s conservation.
I’m not sure if it was through freediving I fell in love with the ocean or if I fell in love with freediving because of my love for the ocean… It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. I definitely feel like the ocean is my closest ally and my greatest escape but my biggest teacher as well.
I feel as if I’m a better person in water and I move steadily. My thoughts move slower, my breath slows down and I become a much more conscious version of myself when I’m in water.
Through my freediving, I’ve got to travel to see all these incredible marine animals, ecosystems and giants that inhabit the ocean. I became increasingly terrified for its wellbeing and I am one of the firm believers in the saying, “protect what you love”. Therefore, having this incredibly all-encompassing love affair with the ocean, there really wasn’t any other choice for me then to get involved in conservation.
I do believe that when what we truly love is threatened, that is when we are compelled to act. As I’ve experienced it myself, this is definitely the route forward I see in how to inspire others to protect our wild places.
Tell me about ‘I Am Water’
I started the ‘I Am Water’ Foundation in 2010 to address something very troubling that I experienced in South Africa, which was the lack of access to the ocean. How many, not just children, but people have very little access to the Ocean. We have an incredible coastline in South Africa and yet we have one of the highest drowning rates in the world. So many people fear the ocean, and so starting ‘I Am Water’ was to really start a movement of reconnecting people who live close to the ocean, but for financial, economic, cultural, and a more variety of different reasons, don’t have access to the ocean, and to then bridge those gaps.
It's spectacular to see the change that has happened in a young life, having their eyes open underwater for the first time.
Guidance for generations to come
What current programmes have you got with ‘I Am Water’?
At the moment, our biggest project is working with Grade 7 students from schools that are in five kilometres walking distance from the ocean where the children have never experienced actually being immersed in water.
We are running workshops now during school time with either one or two groups of kids in different locations where there are an incredible team of coaches who offer these fully transformative experiences and educational workshops where we start with mindfulness and yoga stretching with breath work on the beach.
We then move into an ecology presentation and from there the groups split into three and going through these stations of snorkelling and seeing what is underwater, rockpool exploration and seeing what critters live in the intertidal zone, then a beach clean-up and understanding the threats to our ocean.
We’ve been running the workshop now for a couple of years in Cape Town with thousands of children each year, and it’s spectacular to see the change that has happened in a young life, having their eyes open underwater for the first time.
We also have ‘I Am Water’ ocean travel, which is the fundraising arm of the foundation where we work with paying guests, who want to learn freediving in amazing places all around the world with big animals. It’s not all of our fundraising but it helps towards keeping the organisation ticking over.
And what is upcoming?
What’s next for ‘I Am Water’, we are working on a bunch of different new ideas to further ocean conservation through human experience and really finding the ways that affect long lasting behaviour change. In our experience, that is inspiring people and showing them stories of hope and getting them to fall in love with the ocean.
‘A woman's strength truly can be like that of water, we don't have to be hard to be strong. Water is infinitely soft and caressing but at the same time, so powerful.
Live life like water
If you could pass on a message for younger women, what would that be?
There’s so many aren’t there. I feel like there’s so much call to arms out there at the moment and so much of it is necessary with all the different movements and making the invisible visible with all that women have dealt with.
This ties in with what I’ve experienced in the ocean but I think if I wanted to pass on a message to younger women,
it would be to let your strength be like that of water. A woman’s strength truly can be like that of water, we don’t have to be hard to be strong. Water is infinitely soft and caressing but at the same time can be so powerful.
It can bring down harbours, roads and oil rigs, so, we can be strong but also kind. I think that would be the message closest to my heart, to be strong and soft like water.
• • • Hanli’s beautiful words and her obvious big heart for all that is to do with the ocean, we find very inspiring. A talented diver and entrepreneur, Hanli is creating movement in more ways than one in how we connect with our coastlines and we can’t wait to see what else she has planned for this year!