Most people have not heard of the sport of freediving, nor would it make much sense to them. To push one’s body to the limits of its capacity (and sometimes beyond) for the sake of a sport where in essence you are competing with yourself – well, to many this would seem silly. Silly, like trying to land a spacecraft on the moon or run a mile in under four minutes. For people such as Hanli Prinsloo, it is at the limits of her capabilities that she feels most alive.
She holds all the African records for the various disciplines involved with freediving and is challenging hard in order to gain the world records. “Those are mine,” she tells with me no irony or ego. The world record for freediving with flippers and a lungful of air is 62 metres – Prinsloo has already managed 56m. This is equivalent to swimming to the depth of a 20-storey building.
Getting down there is one thing, but the real danger lies in getting back. Panic is the body’s natural response. Prinsloo uses yoga and believes strongly in the mammalian diving reflex (see sidebar overleaf) – which is just as well, since she is able to hold her breath for around
Within minutes of meeting her, I realised that Hanli Prinsloo is different to most people. She and her sister were raised on a farm near Witbank, with her father breeding horses for show jumping and dressage – her father was also a ‘horse whisperer’ (they do exist) who was regularly consulted regarding troublesome horses in the area.
Growing up on a farm made Prinsloo attuned to the rhythms of nature, so much so that she sometimes finds the quaint fishing village of Kalk Bay – where she now resides – ‘hectic’. By all accounts, she lived a robustly outdoor life growing up, preparing her well for the adventures to come.
Upon completing school, she promptly packed her bags for Sweden where she chose to write Matric in Swedish. “I wanted to be challenged in a new environment where I am out of my comfort zone.” This seems to be a common theme in Prinsloo’s life, which she eloquently verbalises as “growth through discomfort”.
Completing her Swedish schooling while learning the language at the same time, she chose a Performing Arts degree and soon found herself acting on Swedish stage and television productions. It was during this period that a colleague mentioned he was going freediving and Prinsloo asked to try it out.
They rowed to the middle of a lake and jumped in with only the most basic equipment. This opened up an entirely new world for Prinsloo and she had found her calling. She has been freediving for 13 years now and feels she still has a great deal to learn and accomplish.
In 2004, she returned to South Africa for a Swedish television station to cover the changes the country had gone through since becoming a democracy 10 years earlier. She realised that South Africa was her home, and after seven years in Sweden she returned.
Prinsloo has competed and won events all around the globe. Something ruptured in her throat while she was attempting to break the world record in the Red Sea in Egypt. Undeterred and fully recovered, she regards this as something from which to learn and grow.
If Hanli Prinsloo were simply a phenomenal freediver, this story would end here; however, this is really where the story begins for this incredible individual.
She uses her accomplishments in freediving as a platform for the work she finds most meaningful, which is as an activist and advocate for the oceans and the creatures that live therein. Behind the competitive facade lurks a deeply compassionate soul that wants to change the world – and she may just pull it off.
Prinsloo has freedived with some of the largest and most exotic creatures that live in our oceans. She has dived with whale sharks, manta rays, blue whales, sperm whales, giant turtles, dugongs etc. She has a spiritual bond with these animals and uses her freediving talents to interact comfortably with them in their environment. She has had any number of unique interactions that have been well documented. This leads me to another interesting aspect about her.
Although her media and drama training has resulted in her becoming a consummate marketing professional who is able to take a fringe sport such as freediving and turn it into something that is part of our mainstream discourse, Prinsloo is nowhere near being a ‘sellout’. If she were, she would have jumped at the many offers she has had from the likes of National Geographic and other ‘nature’ channels that want to document her incredible life. She will not do it because of what she calls their “double jeopardy” style of journalism, where nature is portrayed as harsh and forbidding. She says this reinforces the stereotype of ‘Man vs Beast’, which has led to humans regarding fauna and flora as commodities.
Prinsloo has decided to tell her story in her own way, which is what makes her so powerful. She has chosen to portray the beauty and compassion of the oceans’ exotic creatures so that we may love them the way she does, and really want to conserve them as opposed to believing so in some abstract sense. She is currently working on a book of unique ocean encounters with Belgian photographer Jean-Marie Ghislain which, from some of the pictures she showed me, promises to be stunning.
To further inculcate a love for the oceans in society, Prinsloo conducts regular freediving courses where the likes of you and I can learnt the techniques in order to conquer our own fears and barriers.
By interacting with the abundant oceans, she believes people grow to love them and then are naturally and completely inclined to their conservation. This is conservation in the real sense, since these individuals become custodians of the ocean and in turn educate others. She has taken this a step further by running freediving courses for the workers tasked with cleaning up the debris and detritus that litter the shores of the Cape Peninsula. Visionary interventions such as this are the stuff that changes behaviour and leads to positive and lasting progress.
Prinsloo has teamed up with a similarly proactive and creative group of people to form the I Am Water Trust, which “fosters ocean conservation through human experience”. The trust is aimed primarily at creating opportunities for previously disadvantaged South Africans to experience our ocean wildernesses.
Some friends of mine happened to do a freedive course with her a few months ago and have spoken of it as a transformative experience.
Prinsloo is also in high demand as a motivational speaker and corporate team-builder. She runs regular yoga classes for the staff and customers of one of her main sponsors. She has mastered the art of self-promotion and managing the media but, unlike most people who do this for egotistical reasons, she has always sought the limelight in order to advocate her great love – the well-being of our oceans.
Through challenging herself and pushing her limits, she encourages us to do the same. It is through her example that she leads, and she does it without pride or bombast, but with grace and poise.
Here we have an exceptional athlete breaking records not for her own glory, but for a higher purpose. Prinsloo has the wisdom to understand that her success will give her a platform and the humility to know how to manage it. She has the determination to push her body to its limits while understanding that one can conquer through yielding as much as through strength.
She has no resentment for those who view the oceans as some kind of floating supermarket or landfill, but rather a determination to help them change.
Some people choose to lead with the head and others with the heart; Prinsloo seems able to master both. She makes us want to do things better and, to coin a cliché, ‘be the change you want to see’. She does not seek fame for itself, but rather as a tool to get her message across.
At this point, it is probably best to conclude with Prinsloo’s own words, from which one may derive the essence of what lies beneath: “Every time I freedive with my ocean friends – from dolphins to whales, sharks and rays – I get this strong feeling of ‘I would die for this’. Luckily this is not yet the choice I’m faced with, which is why I have made an even stronger decision: I will live for this! For seeing our oceans appreciated, protected, experienced and treasured.
I am Water.”