She's friends with sharks and dives with whales. Meet Hanli Prinsloo, the woman who's made it her life mission to raise awareness about our oceans...

Jean-Marie Ghislain

Words by: Lou Boyd

“We all have a little seal inside us, somewhere our body remembers that we have spent time under water. Our body is perfectly designed to dive, we just have to trust it.”

Hanli Prinsloo, the award-winning freediver, ocean conservationist and executive director of the trust I Am Water, is talking at the Finisterre shop in Covent Garden on a spring Thursday night.

This store, situated in London’s West End, is miles away from any coastline.  Tonight, however,  you would forgiven for forgetting that, as the store fills with dozens of people with a joint love for surfing, diving, the ocean and the coast.

We have the same adaptation that dolphins and seals have for deep diving. Seals are our cousins and dolphins are our friends

A person who dives with the ocean’s giants is reason enough to come out after work, but Hanli does even more than that.

Not only does she dive with these great mammals, she dives like them.

As a freediver, Hanli deep dives into the depths of the oceans while holding her breath. She can stay underwater for over six minutes at a time before returning to the surface, much like a whale or a dolphin, to take a breath.

What’s more, she believes we can do the same.

“We have the same adaptation that dolphins and seals have for deep diving. Seals are our cousins and dolphins are our friends,” she explains. “Somewhere we remember that we have been in the water and we have dived before.”

This memory Hanli speaks of is not a metaphorical, emotional or spiritual one, it’s real. Our bodies physically change when we hold our breath and dive.

“The first thing that happens is that your heart rate slows down, a lot, and it gets ready for conserving oxygen,” says Hanli.  “Then as you start diving, oxygenated blood starts gets flushed from the arms and legs and directed towards your essential organs such as the heart and brain.”

“Then something amazing happens. Your spleen, which is a much forgotten organ, suddenly has another purpose. Full of oxygen rich hemoglobin, it contracts and squirts out those blood cells into your blood stream, allowing you to dive for longer.”

Hanli is the perfect example of the amazing capabilities we don’t realise our bodies have.

Standing at only 5’3, she is tiny, yet through her years of diving, she holds bigger lungs than the captain of the South African rugby team – and she knows that because he’s asked her to coach him.

Diving with dolphins, sperm wales, tiger sharks, giant mantarays, turtles and many more species, it cannot be doubted that Hanli has tapped into an aptitude of the human body, which sadly the rest of us leave unused.

Between spending her time befriending the giants of the ocean and securing her place among the best freedivers in the world, Hanli has still found time for a new adventure, launching the ocean conservation trust called I Am Water.

The trust is based around Hanli’s biggest belief, that mankind and nature need each other. One cannot survive without the other.

Working to conserve and protect the ocean, I Am Water looks to educate also young people, especially children, in the hope that they might grow up to carry on this work.

A lot of kids who we take on these trips have never dived before. We show them the secret world that’s all around them…

“I wish that swimming and ocean conservation was included in every single school’s curriculum around the world and that all kids had access to education and water,” says Hanli. “Conservation is a can of worms. You open it up and it becomes a social challenge.”

I Am Water works with underprivileged coastal communities to create impactful programs which can serve to inspire people into looking at the ocean differently.

“A lot of kids who we take on these trips have never dived before,” says Hanli. “We show them the secret world that’s all around them.”

So what are the biggest challenges facing I Am Water in their aim to protect the ocean and its creatures? The big three according to Hanli are climate change, the extraction of animals from the ocean and pollution.

“Climate change is worrying because we really need the oceans to be healthy,” she explains. “They are the biggest carbon sponge. People think it’s the forests but it’s not, it’s the ocean.”

“When we think about pollution, we know not to drink out of plastic bottles, but it’s not just the plastic in the ocean. It’s everything that’s runs in from the rivers. The fertilisers and that sort of thing. All those nutrients in the ocean use up the oxygen as algae grows and blooms.”

“It creates dead zones where fish can’t breathe any more. It’s like the Armageddon for fish and they just can’t live.

“In the UK there are such great resources to make the right decisions about these kind of things. Fish to Fork has done such great work on being able to say, this isn’t a fish we should be eating.”

One of the main things that Hanli feels we need to be aware of is human taking marine life out of the ocean and putting them in tanks.

“I wish that we would completely stop harvesting the ocean. Leave it alone, for as long as it needs to recover,” she says, “particularly the predators, the big tigers and lions of the sea that we so love to hunt.”

“It’s not even just fish that we eat. I wish that every single mammal, seal, creature around the world could get its freedom. To me, it is a disgrace that in this day and age there are these animals around the world kept in captivity.”

It’s a symptom of a society that really doesn’t think things through about how we treat other sentient beings

While the practices of places such as Sea World and their capture of orcas is gaining more attention from the world, Hanli believes the situation is more complicated and needs to be rectified.

“With say, little clown fish, the aquariums have created the perfect little environment for them and the fish is stoked. We do good husbandry for the smallest of the small.”

“Then we capture the most intelligent animal on the earth, other than humans and we put them in a blue swimming pool and say we’re researching them. There is nothing natural about it, nothing.”

“It’s a symptom of a society that really doesn’t think things through about how we treat other sentient beings and as an extension each other and ourselves. I think it’s something that we need to work on for sure.”

“If you haven’t watched Blackfish or The Cove or End Of The Line, do it. Yes, you will cry. Yes, it sucks. I watched them, I sobbed in a cinema watching The Cove like I’ve never sobbed before.

“But if we don’t watch those films and we don’t face up to these things, how can we expect over people to do it? Do it, it’s worth it.”

To find out more about Hanli and her work, visit and to find out how you can help and get involved with the work she does, find more information over at

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