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Hanli Prinsloo: Journey to the Last Wilderness on one breath

Record-breaking freediver Hanli Prinsloo speaks to Jacada ahead of the opening of her photo exhibition at The Haven, Hong Kong
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Hanli Prinsloo is one of the world's best freedivers and most passionate ocean advocates. Hailing from South Africa, she holds 11 South African freediving records with over a decade of competitive freediving experience, was the first South African to hold all six free diving records simultaneously and is a speaker, writer and a leading conservationist. Prinsloo has taught freediving to over 500 individuals as a world-class instructor and coach with an unbridled love for sharing the ocean with others. She is the founder of the I AM WATER Ocean Conservation Trust. She was one of the 2014 Young Global Leaders under the World Economic Forum, can hold her breath up to an impressive six minutes and has recently opened a photo exhibition at The Haven in collaboration with Jacada.

'The Last Wilderness' photo exhibition showcases a wide array of underwater photography depicting Prinsloo interacting with marine life in some of the world's most pristine oceans, captured by underwater photographer Peter Marshall on one breath. During his career as a swimmer, Peter claimed two world titles, eight world records and enjoyed 11 consecutive years on the US National Team, before turning his talents to coaching freediving and pioneering the social entrepreneurship model of I AM WATER Ocean Travel. Ahead of the opening of their photo exhibition, Prinsloo sat down with Jacada to discuss her life as a freediver, the importance of ocean conservation and the idyllic pleasures of swimming freely with some of the ocean's most exciting and iconic marine life.

How did you become a freediver?

I was always a water baby, and even though I grew up far from the ocean on a horse farm outside of Pretoria, my sister and I made use of any bodies of water we could find. After studying in South Africa I moved to Sweden to continue my studies. I met a really good freediver there who asked if I had heard of freediving. I thought it was a translation error because I thought nothing is for free in Sweden! Then I thought does he mean scuba reduced for students or something, and so he explained to me what freediving was and immediately I thought – that’s what I dreamt of doing as a little girl. I used to dream of holding my breath underwater and swimming with my sister like mermaids. I did my first ever freedives in a very cold fjord in Sweden and I had this absolute sense of coming home and peace. It was freezing and dark, and not at all optimal, but it has brought me now to believe that anything you learn in suboptimal conditions makes you good!

 

You travel all around the world freediving as your exhibition shows, what is your most memorable freediving experience?

Even though I spent so many years competing, my most memorable experiences are always with animals. People say your first time really stands out and I will never forget my first time with dolphins. It was in Mozambique while I was still competing and I was there to train. While we were on the boat on the way out to deeper water we bumped into this big pod of dolphins. The boat driver told me to not even bother getting into the water as they were spinner dolphins – in Mozambique spinner dolphins aren’t interested in playing, they just aren’t as curious as bottlenose dolphins are. But I begged to try as I was in peak shape for competitions so I just slipped on my monofin and swam down.

The dolphins surrounded me and started twirling around me creating this amazing vortex. They followed me all the way down to the bottom which was about 30 metres deep, and I was in this ball of dolphins, fins and flippers thinking ‘what is this?’ This was a whole other expression of freediving and seeing how the dolphins moved underwater while I moved with them inspired me to think that there is more I can do with this than just the rope training. So I think in a way that sticks out as a memorable experience just because it brought two worlds together. It was also another important lesson –  that you will never experience anything from the boat, so get in the water because you never know!

 

What are some of the best destinations in the world for freediving?

As you can see in the exhibition, we’ve had the opportunity to freedive in a very diverse array of ocean destinations all around the world. The best destinations that we have found are the ones that we now take our guests too, which are Madagascar, Mexico, Niue and Mozambique. For us, it’s always about the animals. These areas are all so incredible because they are migratory and definitely have a specific best time of year to visit. We offer trips during the times when the marine life is incredible, and we can sustainably and ethically interact with animals. We keep our dive times quite short so that we can go down more often. The kinds of animals we are swimming with are normally right by the surface so while you rest in between dives, you can swim or snorkel while watching the marine life just below you.

 

Have you noticed any recent changes in the world of freediving?

Definitely. I competed for 13 years, and I’ve seen freediving really increase in popularity. I have heard that it is a huge, growing sport in China now. I think that people are drawn to authentic experiences and there is a real need to do something where you can really feel yourself come alive. People are yearning for immersive and pure experiences. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen the yoga revolution and I don’t think freediving is that different, but it adds an extra element of adventure and travel. I transitioned out of competitive freediving just as it started booming, and now watching it from the sidelines, I really want to see it grow as an exploration tool. This is such an important aim of our trips, we offer people an alternative to going to a freediving school where they will be taught the technicalities in order to compete. Instead, if people train with us they will learn the same technicalities from top coaches but in order to explore.

Do you have any top tips for people keen to try freediving?

Absolutely. I think freediving is so natural for us and it really is accessible to everyone. Everyone can do it due to our inner mammalian diving reflex which I like to call our ‘inner seal’, where our body adapts to freediving. If you are keen to get into the water breath-hold and depth training, then I definitely recommend beginning your training with an experienced coach. You can start to condition your body through yoga and swimming training. Once you have done that groundwork, you can find a coach to train with. There will be a lot of breathing exercises, breath awareness and lung stretching that you can do. I find when I train yogis who have a regular yoga and Pranayam practice, they take to freediving so quickly – there are a lot of crossovers and similarities.

Are there any similarities with scuba?

We find that a lot of people who have done scuba diving for many years want to try freediving if they are looking for something different and also something even more athletic. We love that. I think it’s a disservice to both scuba and freediving to actually compare the two because they are so different. When you scuba dive you put on a lot of equipment, go down and visit for around 40 minutes. You observe the marine life so it’s similar to a safari experience, whereas when you freedive you go down with one breath and enter the environment as one of the animals. You become part of the ecosystem and it’s very immersive. You become part of it and the animals welcome you in a different way. It is much quieter as the bubbles and the noise don’t disturb them, and your feeling is also one of total immersion.

Can you tell me more about your interactions with marine life?

People often ask me about sharks because I have swum with almost every species of shark. As you can see in the exhibition there are several images of hammerhead sharks. All of our interactions are based on knowledge of their behaviour, expectations and needs so that we don’t make them feel threatened in any way. I actually have the most anticipation about swimming with whales because of their intelligence and awareness – you know, it’s like getting to meet your heroes! It isn’t scary, instead, it’s more like ‘oh wow, I hope they like me!’ We teach you a toolkit to entertain a dolphin or a shark, and we just feel this intense gratitude for sharing the same space.

 

Do you have any favourite images on show?

Oh no, I can’t choose, it’s like choosing your favourite child! I was just about to say that I love seeing photos of Cape Town as so few people know how beautiful our back garden is but then I thought of the jackfish images and being able to see the amount of life in that marine reserve. Oh and I love the images of dolphins too, oh no I cant! This exhibition shows a wide range of images but it’s really just a sliver of our favourite images and stories. It is just exciting to see so much of what we’ve experienced and loved represented in one space. When I see these photos, I just think ‘aw I miss those guys’, especially the pod of dolphins in southern Mozambique who I’ve been swimming with for 10 years and they still recognise me and show me their babies. It is such a privilege to take these images and show them in such a beautiful space here at The Haven.

Stay tuned for further interviews with Hanli Prinsloo. ‘The Last Wilderness’ is currently open at The Haven, 29/F, Wyndham Place, 40-44 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong. Please see The Haven’s page for more information. 

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