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What if you could hold your breath for a whole six minutes? For freediving ocean warrior Hanli Prinsloo, diving 65m into the deep blue ocean is like coming home. But what if, as Hanli believes, we all have the untapped ability to do this? Sound crazy? It may not be as crazy as you think.

And, if you could, what secrets lie waiting to be discovered in this deep world of blue?

Hanli’s relationship with water can only be described as a love story. I listen as she tells giddily of a childhood spent perfecting ‘mermaid language’ and willing her hands and feet to transform into fins and flippers. Have you ever wondered what swimming with a whale shark is like? With wonder in her eyes, Hanli describes it as ‘staring into the starry sky’. Another of her best-loved experiences is gliding through the water with manta rays: ‘big, elegant, graceful creatures that lift up their wings to let you pass by’.

As Hanli speaks, I am overwhelmed by this whole other world – carried away into this exciting, seemingly perfect realm of being at one with the ocean – it is a place that I know so little of. Her descriptions are vivid and intimate and I can’t help but be a little jealous. Yet something is stirring within me and I am determined to learn more…

Hanli with the sharks - photo copyright Tom Peschack

Of all ocean creatures, it is turtles that capture my curiosity the most. Perhaps this comes from watching video clips of tiny newborns waddling their way to the ocean. It amazes me that, being so little, they know exactly which direction to go in and persevere through the shoreline waves with such bravery. ‘Staring into the eye of a turtle is like greeting an old, wise soul,’ says Hanli. I find this hardly surprising since we know that turtles have inhabited our planet for more than 150 million years (the date of the oldest turtle fossil found). Can you imagine being able to listen to the stories of a 100-year-old turtle that has spent a lifetime journeying the world’s oceans?

Hanli also describes swimming with sperm whales, ‘They are very intelligent … they make many different sounds in the water. Sometimes I hear them talking to each other, back and forth as if gossiping about the squid, and then my heart starts pounding because one of them is looking me over. There is nothing as unnerving as being scanned by a whale, inspecting you with a tick-ticking sound. I know that they can feel my presence, so I repeat over and over, “I love you I love you I love you, and hope that they can feel my love… We know so little about them…”

Photo copyright Jean-Marie Ghislain

Perhaps we all have this inborn, even if untapped, desire for the ocean. Those who don’t like swimming in it usually enjoy staring at it or collecting little treasures spilt by its waves onto the shore. Let’s consider the fact that the first 9 months of our human lives are spent submerged in a liquid not unlike salt-water and that, in fact, we all began life as swimmers. Is it possible that our bodies remember how to adapt to life under water?

Hanli says YES. ‘We all have a little seal inside us, waiting to remember.’ This is because our bodies have special reflexes that were developed from the very beginning and together are called The Mammalian Diving Reflex. I listen amazed as Hanli describes the changes in her body during a free-dive. ‘You start with a few powerful strokes. The important part is trust – I have to trust myself. I move into free fall and gravity takes over. This is my favourite part, when I know I was born to do this. First I feel my heart rate slowing down. Then blood begins to flush toward my brain as my blood vessels shrink. My spleen – a little sponge – contracts and squirts haemoglobin into my blood so that oxygen-rich blood cells are pumped into my heart, lungs and brain.’

Hanli is an inspiration, diving achievements aside; she is a deeply caring, deeply passionate person. Her love of water led her to establish the I Am Water organisation. ‘It is my way of giving back. The ocean may be the last wilderness. It may be large, but we need to treat it as if it is very small … hold it like a baby,’ she expresses lovingly.

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Rachel Lang

Hi, I’m Rach . If not adventuring in the African bush, the chances are I’m dreaming about it. My childhood played a big role in this passion as I was privileged to travel much of Southern Africa from an early age. Needless to say, I’m happiest barefoot with a sketchbook in hand – watching elephants at a water hole or listening to lions roaring around a campfire. Wildlife, children and storytelling are a big part of my life. Follow my adventures on my blog