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Hanli Prinsloo: The Freediver

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hanliprinsloo
Freediver

Record-breaking freediver, Hanli Prinsoo, is founder of I Am Water, an ocean conservation trust dedicated to conserving and protecting the world's oceans through human experience

When people find out I freedive, the first thing they usually ask is how I got into it. I’ve always been a great lover of the outdoors and of the ocean and wilderness, but it usually surprises people when I tell them I had never actually heard about freediving until I tried it. I was with a friend of mine in a fjord in Sweden and I just... gave it a go! I was hooked right away.

'Freediving... demonstrates how we can actually shift the way our body physically reacts to situations through mental awareness and mindset training.'

Freediving is amazing for so many reasons, but what really fascinates me is that it shows just what the human body and mind are capable of. That’s what drew me to it and what keeps me interested. It shows that something that feels impossible at first can become possible; you just need to change a few things. 

I’m curious about how the human body and mind work in different situations and freediving is the absolute best place to explore this because it demonstrates how we can actually shift the way our body physically reacts to situations through mental awareness and mindset training. Diving very deep – even with breathing apparatus – has its inherent dangers, but so much of freediving is simply about knowing and respecting the limitations of both mind and body.

© Peter Marshall
'You get this sense of the ocean almost holding you tighter and tighter and tighter in this great embrace.'

The second thing people usually ask me is what it feels like to freedive. It’s hard to describe, but the sensation of diving deep is phenomenal. It’s such a different kind of quiet. A way of connecting with the ocean in one breath, the world slows down and becomes more focused and silent. As you go deeper your body becomes compressed with building pressure as the water becomes denser than the air in your lungs, so you get this sense of the ocean almost holding you tighter and tighter and tighter in this great embrace.

Physiologically, when we freedive the body triggers an incredible adaptation we have for being underwater called the ‘Mammalian Dive Response’. The first thing that happens is bradycardia, which is the slowing down of the heart rate. The second thing is vasoconstriction (constriction of the blood vessels to reduce blood flow) with the centralisation of blood flow to the core. And finally you get the spleen response, where the spleen constricts and releases haemoglobin-rich blood into the bloodstream.

Freediving also highlights just how powerful our breath is. Breathing helps manage our heart rate, anxiety and how we approach challenging situations in our everyday life. Breath works like a bridge between freediving and our everyday lives. It proves that while incredible things are possible, there are always limitations. That’s why I truly believe that to be successful, within life or sports, you need to be able to find that fine line between what is possible and what’s actually impossible and not worth pursuing.

© Peter Marshall
'The idea that we need to protect nature, for nature’s sake, is completely deranged! We are nature.'

It feels like humans are getting more and more disconnected from how our bodies interact and react to nature. That disconnection is probably the greatest threat to our planet right now. We seem to feel we are more cerebral and technological as a species as opposed to an animal that lives on this planet. That has the effect of making us feel separate from nature. But even just the idea that we need to protect nature, for nature’s sake, is completely deranged! We are nature. We are an integral part of nature and by not taking care of the planet, we are also damaging ourselves. 

Having said that, there are many Island nations and coastal cultures that do still have an affinity for nature. Many have changed a lot, and I think the really interesting ones are the Austronesian people of the Mergui Archipelago (sometimes referred to as Sea Gypsies) who are still able to retain 20/20 vision underwater, which just totally blows my mind. There are also the Ama divers; Japanese pearl and shellfish divers, where the woman freedive to live off the sea, but only the older generation remains. It’s vital that a new generation of coastal custodians and communities step up for the ocean.

Coming back from years of studying in Sweden and competing in freediving around the world, being back home in South Africa and seeing how few South Africans have real access to the oceans reminded me how the ocean is such a segregated place. And that’s an absolute travesty, especially when you consider the power of the ocean to connect us to nature.

I started the nonprofit organistaion I Am Water as a response to that reality. We organise amazing trips with the sole purpose of reconnecting as many people as possible with nature. We work with thousands of children every year, getting them to experience the ocean, fall in love with it and therefore instill a desire to protect it.

Follow Hanli on Instagram.