Oceanographic Magazine: A journey from fear to love - Freyja Foundation

Oceanographic Magazine: A journey from fear to love

14.01.21 — I AM WATER, Feature

Hanli Prinsloo, ocean conservationist and founder of Freyja’s grantee I AM WATER Foundation, shares her story of growing up in South Africa, becoming a free diving champion, and dedicating her life to educating and spreading the joy of oceans to South Africa’s most underserved youth.

“How many of you live walking distance from the ocean?” Hands shoot up. “Me miss”, “me”, “me!” come the responses. “How many of you can swim?” A few tentative hands rise. “How many of you feel safe in the ocean?” Wary glances seek approval. “Don’t worry about your answers, you’ll still be allowed to snorkel…” No hands rise. “How many of you have worn a mask before and seen what is underwater?” Heads shake and eyes grow large.

Despite having more than 2,000km of coastline, famous Olympic swimmers and world-renowned surfers, South Africa has some of the most severe drowning statistics in the world. Its citizens’ relationship with water is neither positive nor fair. In the great lottery of birth I was lucky to be born white in Apartheid South Africa. I learnt to swim before the age of three. I spent holidays by the beach and had a swimming pool at home. At nineteen I moved to Sweden to study and in a deep fjord I discovered freediving. Far away from national unrest, trans-generational guilt and a family torn apart by politics, I found peace – a world beneath the waves where my thoughts slowed down, my body became weightless and I had space. Space to consider. Space to celebrate. Space to mourn. I immersed myself in the world of freediving. I spent long, cold winters swimming up and down in a swimming pool underwater increasing my breath-hold; midnight sun summers on the granite rocks of the Swedish west coast diving deep along a rock wall, learning about my body in water. As my fascination with what was possible on one breath grew so did the understanding of the aquatic adaptation in humans. Research around the Mammalian Dive Response increased and we allowed scientists to measure our lungs, monitor our oxygen saturation and even observe our spleens during breath-holds. I learnt that our bodies remember water. As my face touches the water my heart rate slows down. As the carbon dioxide in my body rises my blood flow centralises to my core. As my body preserves and requires oxygen my spleen constricts, releasing oxygen-rich haemoglobin. I revelled in my aquatic abilities. Twenty, 40, 50, 60 metres deep on one breath. One hundred, 120, 140, 150 metres in the pool. We have the same Mammalian Dive Response that allows whales, dolphins and seals to dive to great depths and hold their breaths for hours on end. My body surprised and enthralled me as I learned to trust this inner seal.


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