At home in the deepest, bluest and most remote corners of earth, freediver and conservationist Hanli Prinsloo is a witness for the wild.
She’s also a friend of Finisterre and a key player in our microplastics campaign. We talked frankly to Hanli about her frontline encounters with the problem, hope in the littlest pipefish, and the untold power of loving the sea.
Can you remember a particular moment when the plastic problem became real for you?
In 2007 I was in the Maldives, diving with manta rays and whale sharks for a freediving photo campaign. The dive sites were incredible, the water was so beautiful. One day we stopped on this little island and I went for a walk on my own. I walked away from the touristy side towards the back of the island and suddenly I was thigh-deep in trash. The prevailing currents and wind bring all this trash onto the shore and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was as if I'd walked into a parallel universe. I'd never imagined a beach where you couldn't see the sand, or the rocks, or anything.
That was my first eyes-wide-open experience of the problem. I was devastated. I'd just spent the morning swimming with a whale shark; the night before doing a night dive with these incredible manta rays swirling around me. And then walking there and realising – this trash has come from their home, we've done this. I couldn't fathom how we could've let it happen. That was more than ten years ago and since then I've had to understand how, because there's so much more now.
In all your travels, have you come across plastic in surprising places?
You just can't get away from it anymore. That's the reality of it. The most shocking thing for me has been going to very remote places and experiencing all kinds of plastic in the water.
To get to Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica, you fly in, drive to the east coast, jump on a boat, and then it takes 36 hours to reach the island. It's incredibly remote. There are only two boats with a permit to go there and one little house on the island for the marine rangers. The whole area is marine-protected. It’s an incredible shark sanctuary; the most sharks per square metre in the world.
I was there with Sylvia Earle, Adrian Grenier and other ocean advocates. And every day, after our incredible dives with hammerheads, tiger sharks or whale sharks, we would find these small islands of trash floating just off the island. All these little filefish and surgeonfish have made this trash their home, so we’d have to carefully shake out all the little fish as we tried to pull it out the water. That's the problem with cleaning the ocean. You can't just scoop it all up in a big net. People love to dream about that and fund it. But it's not the reality. Partly because of the plastic disintegration – microplastics – and partly because all these things become ‘fish aggregating devices’.
Sometimes in Cape Town or Mozambique when we do beach clean ups, we read the packaging. It often looks Malaysian, or Indonesian. This is not local trash. That's the big challenge with the ocean. It’s everyone's resource and everyone's problem. They say you're known by your actions when nobody's watching and that’s how it’s been. Countries have gotten away with it for so long. Once we know better, we have to do better – and we really do know better now. There are no more excuses. It's time for change.
Are these things easier to ignore when they’re invisible? You mentioned microplastics – they’re often hidden to the naked eye...
Microplastics are a sneaky evil. The problem’s hard to pin down. It's hard to get rid of and it targets the most crucial and vulnerable of our marine life. The microplastics look and behave like the building blocks – the zoo- and phyto-planktons – so the bottom of the food chain gets corrupted. The impact on filter feeders is the most disturbing to me. I’ve been diving in Indonesia and experienced the absolute horror of swimming through a cloud of microplastics alongside a feeding manta ray. Seeing that beautiful big mouth open, you want to push it away – but the plastic has ended up where they naturally feed, what can they do? Friends of mine in Indonesia are looking at the health of the manta rays and they’re seeing effects at a cellular level –it's shocking.
There’s a danger with the unobvious, and that’s the thing with microplastics. We’re such a reactive species, we only act when the shit's already hit the fan. We’ve lost that knowledge of nature and how to change things before it's too late. We're reacting now, wanting to find solutions, but a lot of those solutions aren’t viable. We have to differentiate between large plastic pieces in the ocean versus microplastics. People have to understand that these are two very different things.
“What kind of a species do we want to be? What kind of a world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where we've destroyed all of the natural beauty? The ocean is more than just a food source. It's a place for inspiration, recreation and connection.”
- Hanli Prinsloo
Now we know that microplastics enter the foodchain, and therefore our own bodies, do you think that’ll speed up our reaction?
I haven’t eaten fish for seven or eight years, because we’ve been overfishing for decades; but now that it might affect our health, people are more accepting of my decision. It's bizarre. The ocean is life-sustaining, so we need to make the right choices. That’s a big part of Sylvia Earle’s messaging – “we need to protect the ocean as if our lives depend upon it – because they do”. It’s simple and obvious. But for me it's more than that.
What kind of a species do we want to be? What kind of a world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where we've destroyed all of the natural beauty? The ocean is more than just a food source. It's a place for inspiration, recreation and connection. It's so much more than simply necessary.
How are you seeing people respond to the problem globally? Are there different approaches depending on where you are?
The beach clean-up frenzy is great because people feel like they're physically making a difference, which is fantastic. And materials innovation around the problem is getting interesting, turning rubbish into threads, and so on. These things put the topic on the table, but they’re not directly solving the problem. We can clean the beaches in Cape Town until the cows come home – but when the rain comes down, we can’t deal with the amount of trash that comes down the river and into the ocean. The rivers are often the problem. It doesn't matter if you're not living on the beach. It's not necessarily the coastal communities at fault. Everywhere upriver is part of the problem if you litter in any way.
I’m in the US at the moment and the plastics conversation is not as obvious as in the UK. But in areas here sustainable seafood is well spoken about, while in the UK, who knows what fish is in your fish and chips? We’re united, literally, by the ocean and our challenges are shared. My hope is that as awareness around plastic pollution rises, awareness of all threats to the ocean rises.
We do have to talk about overfishing and climate change and other forms of pollution. It can’t become a conversation in a vacuum, that's not how nature systems work. We have to see a multi-pronged and multinational approach. I believe our hearts and minds are big enough to care about all these things. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are valuable blueprints for a better world. If we can start achieving our goals in all of those, then we're winning. The success of one will be the success of all.
You’re on the move at the moment, travelling the world and speaking on behalf of the ocean. What’s the key message?
Reminding people of their connection to the ocean. When what we love is threatened, then we act. It’s about encouraging everyone in their everyday lives to be more aware of how their actions have an impact. Whether I’m talking to people who are buying plastic bags at the supermarket, or great industrialists who own shares in the biggest fishing fleets and industries in the world, or old money philanthropists who could be giving more to conservation. I try to get people to feel empowered; that they have a role to play. “I may be up here speaking, but you're as involved as I am”: that's the story I try to share.
I don’t hit people over the head with scary facts to make them feel guilty. Guilt is a really bad activator. I come from a place of connection and appreciation, and then I drive the stake into their heart! People are so entranced and under the spell of the ocean after the stories I've told and the images I've shown, that I think they hear the conservation message.
I'm excited when I see messaging that balances beauty with the doom and gloom. It’s a real challenge to the cause when the people involved get on their high horse. Some people's greatest obstacle to trying to do better is the fear of criticism that they’re not doing enough. It’s important we encourage and support each other to make lifestyle choices without judgement.
What keeps you optimistic and energised in the face of this sometimes overwhelming problem?
Personally, I have to spend time in nature and dive with the animals often. I have to really connect with the ocean. Part of what keeps me optimistic is that we have so much left to fight for. As long as there are wild dolphins, whales and whale sharks, manta rays and coral reefs and cute little pipefish and all the other critters out there, of course there's hope. And of course we have to keep fighting, for their sake.
And then at a systems level, as the challenges increase, the conversation is broadening too. Our representation in the Sustainable Development Goals is huge. Ten years ago, I would be speaking at a conference and I would be a complete outsider, in talking about oceans. It’s on the table now where it wasn't always. That gives me hope. The challenges are so big we need people from different walks of life taking them on. The power of partnership and collaboration is really important to me and there are more and more partnerships happening.
Finisterre is a fantastic example of that. So often, in this field, people have felt protective of their space. We don't have time for that. So the power of collaboration coming out of the strength of people's conviction, that also inspires hope.
“Get in the water. Get salty. Get that connection going again. Get vitalised and excited about change.”
It’s so valuable when people realise how powerful they are. It’s easy to feel removed from the problem. I see that a lot. It’s dangerous to take the stance that “somebody else has to fix it, it's too big and I feel hopeless”. Personal changes do matter. Voting with your wallet does make a difference. Choosing stores that use less packaging, choosing to always have your reusable coffee cup and shopping bags with you. Choosing to make the effort. All those things make a difference. The corporations take note, the governments take note.
If you're seeing too many videos of plastic in the ocean and succumbing to despair, stop watching those and take a little bit of time to watch beautiful things. More than anything, get in the water. Get salty. Get that connection going again. Get vitalised and excited about change. The last thing we need is people that give up hope for the ocean.