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THE AQUATIC SELF | HANLI PRINSLOO

Living a life aquatic engenders a deep respect of our oceans. By connecting with the water we gain a greater appreciation of its inhabitants, and our place in their world. When it comes to living life under the surface there are few more knowledgable than Hanli Prinsloo, a champion freediver and ocean activist. We caught up with Hanli to discuss how being in the ocean affects her and reveals her aquatic self.

As a freediver and surfer, I have come to intimately know the feeling of the ocean below me, but also around me. I grew up far from the ocean but the pull of water was ever present - long days spent floating in the small streams on the farm, diving down in the chocolate brown water of the  murky dam, arching and kicking with my legs held together, desperately trying to be a dolphin. Discovering freediving was like an invitation into a place I’d always believed existed, like Narnia. On one breath you enter a world of talking animals, unimaginable creatures and a vibrant luminescence beyond your wildest dreams.

The act of spending time in and under water is not new. For as long as humans have roamed our planet we’ve had relationships with the ocean. From foraging for shellfish and edible algae to diving for oysters, sea sponges and fish. But it hasn’t always been transactional, the ocean has always held an allure and embodied myths of meeting ‘the other’. Selkies, Mermaids, the Kraken, Atlantis… our imagination captured by what might lie just below the shimmering surface, fuelled by the sleek head and liquid eyes of a harbour seal, the swish of a tail from a dugong or the glimpse of a giant squid, stories lived on to be told again and again.

Through deep freediving I learnt about my body’s adaptation to water. I experienced and explored my mammalian dive response, our deep rooted physiological response to being submerged, a doorway into what lies below. This aquatic self awakens when we step into water, the mechanics of which we share with dolphins, whales and seals - our water born cousins. 

I truly believe that I’m a better person when I’m near or in the ocean - I’m a more complete version of myself. It starts with my breathing, slowing down the breath and directing it into my belly I slow my exhale more and more until each exhale is a trickle of air out my snorkel. My heart rate follows, beat by beat by beat I can hear the rhythm clearly, slow and slower still. And with the long exhales, my fight and flight mode, the sympathetic nervous system takes a step back and I enter the connected place of the parasympathetic. And then, finally, my thoughts slow down… way down. I enter a meditative state no ashram, mindfulness app or guru has never been able to teach me. Floating quietly, breathing deeply and thinking slowly I can take that one big breath that allows me once again that step through the wardrobe door, not to escape, but to connect. With my breath, my self, our shared history and all that the ocean holds.

When we carry this sense of our aquatic self with us constantly, our behaviour changes; we can see ourselves as a part of something larger, connected. We can consider our impact on our beautiful blue planet and the other non-human persons we get to share it with. Your ocean-self will never forget how what you eat, buy or support affects the wellbeing of your wild dolphin cousin, playful seal friend or a wise deep diving whale.

Salt water in our veins, around us or under us - we are aquatic.

WORDS BY HANLI PRINSLOO | PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MARSHALL