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A deep understanding: From freediving to ocean conservation

Whale Shark

Former record-breaking freediver, Hanli Prinsloo, speaks to Glint about how emotional moments underwater inspired the foundation of the I am Water Foundation to help conserve the world’s oceans

“It feels like the ocean is giving you the biggest, tightest hug ever,” says Hanli Prinsloo of the numerous deep-sea descents of her freediving career. Having already broken numerous records in her native South Africa at the start of her career, a few years ago she found herself in a Swedish fjord, once again taking one breath and diving to 60m. Having felt her chest compress, her spleen shrink to half its size, pumping out oxygen-rich haemoglobin in the process, and her body become negatively buoyant at 25m, she steadily sank downwards – as she had done many times before. “I got to the bottom of the rope, I opened my eyes to grab my tag and it was pitch black. I thought ‘The pressure has affected my optic nerve and I’ve lost my eyesight…’”

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“When I started freediving, there weren’t any education systems back then, it was more like a weird apprenticeship. You just had to find a guru and learn from them,” says Prinsloo when we meet before her address to an audience gathered inside London’s Royal Geographical Society. In 1998 she met a Swedish “sailor and adventurer” who taught her the basics of one-breath diving. Previously more associated with restrictions, freediving has now become a recreation – to many a sport – associated with the risk of setting new boundaries. While scuba-divers typically descend no further than 40m, Prinsloo would regularly pass 60m depth in just one breath. “Back then that was a deep dive, now the girls are going much further.” (The International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) lists the ‘constant weight’ record as 104m, held by Italy’s Alessia Zecchini and the US’s Tanya Streeter as holding the ‘no limits’, weight aided, record at 160m.)

Despite such parameters, Prinsloo says freediving is badly classified as an adventure sport. “It’s much more of an aquatic mindfulness practice, you’ve got to think as little as possible and as slowly as possible.” As the brain uses a huge proportion of your oxygen she advocates meditation twinned with yoga as the best training because it affords divers greater lung capacity and better mind control – something that also staves off panic at depth. “There’s no ‘pushing through the fear’, to me that’s a load of bullcrap.”

However, during that dive in the Swedish fjord, fear did manifest itself in an unexpected but almost tragic way. In the seconds that followed opening her eyes to impenetrable darkness, Prinsloo began undoing her safety line, resolving not to live blind and, therefore, not to surface. “I decided this was the place to end it… but as I was fiddling with the carabiner I remembered my dad’s cousin and her guide dog, Friday. I thought: ‘I’ll get a Labrador! We’ll have that special bond that people get to have with dogs when they’re blind – I’ll be fine!’ And so I started swimming up.” On reaching the surface she found the light, and her sight, returning. “The organiser leaned over the side of the boat and said ‘was it dark down there? I think we forgot to change the batteries in the torches.’”

Speaking now about almost making a “ridiculous mistake”, Prinsloo says that human error and those not-long-life batteries, gave her a seminal lesson in control and responsibility. Something fully realised a year later whilst diving with sperm whales in the Indian Ocean. “They dived down to hunt and the one baby is usually left with a young female – a babysitter. That day I was the young female… That made me realise this is a shared space. For some reason, even though we are not that powerful, we hold all the power.”

Manta Ray

Hanli Prinsloo swimming with a manta ray off Ecuador (photo: Peter Marshall / I AM WATER Ocean Travel)

Sea change

The event at which Prinsloo is speaking in London is the Steppes Travel Beyond Festival, a series of talks run in conjunction with a number of ocean conservation and education charities, notably Plastic Oceans and Incredible Oceans. Prinsloo describes her own journey into conservation as a “slow slide” as she realised the vulnerability of the environment she was exploring. “If what you love is threatened, then you are compelled to act. I couldn’t just flit in and out of being in the ocean, it had to be a full time thing so that’s what propelled me to start I am Water.”

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Founded in 2010, I am Water seeks to help preserve and protect the ocean through experience, awareness and advocacy. Central to that mission is helping disadvantaged communities in Mozambique, South Africa and Bermuda appreciate, and benefit from, the ocean through education and recreation. This part of the operation is largely funded by the for-profit mission side which gives paying guests the opportunity to learn to freedive around the world, often with the chance to do so with sea-life; this includes whale sharks off Mexico and humpback whales in the South Pacific.

Such journeys are not necessarily idyll showcases of how the ocean can be but rather how it is. Of a recent trip to Bali, Prinsloo describes the conflicting emotion of “swimming eye to eye with a magical manta ray serenely feeding, and wiping trash out of your face”. Such experiences may be becoming the new norm: In 2015 a report published in Science estimated that around 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, while the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation estimates 90% of global fish stocks are overfished or fully-fished.

This means reduction of consumption will be essential, as sustainable fishing is currently a myth says Prinsloo. “If you’re going to Cape Town next year you might think ‘ah, I can eat sustainable tuna there, because that’s where they have it.’ But you shouldn’t think that in a restaurant in the middle of Chicago, you should be able to just order a seabass, tuna or salmon in one day. It should be much more of luxury item. It’s important that we understand its rarity. My advice to restaurants would be: ‘You should be careful serving this fish, it is highly unsustainable and you might run into trouble if you get called on this. It’s kind of a veiled threat but I’ve seen people change menus. Consumers should understand how powerful they are. We can vote with our wallet.”

The cause of the ocean is not an isolated one she says, highlighting the interconnectivity of climate change, industrial production and the state of the seas. “We can’t call ourselves lovers of the ocean or environmentalists if we still eat meat. You don’t have to accept that but it’s true.” She details how a rise in temperature of just a few degrees threatens the world’s zooplankton; micro-animals that absorb carbon dioxide. “If these guys die we lose more that all the rainforests on the planet. The ocean creates most of the oxygen we breathe.”

Prinsloo is forthright in her belief in emotion empowering a sense being a of stakeholder in the environment. She says that when people feel responsible they change their behaviour, mentioning freedivers who have left the sport as they start families. Equating such an emotional connection to our oceans could help to protect and preserve the planet she says, as individuals see their current actions as risk inducing. “If we can open our hearts and feel love for the natural world then that changes our behaviour because when what we love is threatened we change.”

rock pool

Prinsloo with young beneficiaries of I am Water’s education project in Mozambique (photo: Charlie Dailey)

Critics might say that is an overly-emotive response but that is clearly the point. Indeed, rationalising the human reaction to the jeopardy of the oceans compliments Prinsloo’s role in South African townships – a long term project focused on social, as well as environmental change – and her guidance of philanthropists and fishing fleet owners on freediving journeys. Providing all individuals with experience that is at once tender and realist is the mission: “People do ask if we’re advocacy or a grass-roots organisation. It’s exciting to think that we’re both because at the moment I think to create, real, lasting change you have to be both.” That fits into a greater need: “And also because we’re running out of time.”

I am Water expeditions are bookable through Steppes Travel,
including 2018’s Mozambique trip

I am Water Ocean Travel

Picture top is Hanli Prinsloo freediving with a whale shark off Ecuador (photo: Peter Marshall / I AM WATER Ocean Travel)

Alex Matchett is the editor of Glint

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