Free diving means a deep, far and long dive with a single breath. There is no oxygen tank, as little equipment as possible, and absolute silence. It is the purest form of being underwater and is so much more than just a physical victory – it is absolute submission to the ocean.

By: Martie Bester

If you thought mermaids existed only in fables and the fantasies of sailors, think again. Some were born on land, but answered the call of the sea and exchanged their legs for fins. Hanli Prinsloo, a country girl who became a champion free diver as a teenager, is one such mermaid. She is one of the founder members of the non-profit organisation I AM WATER, and campaigns for greater awareness of the oceans.

Hanli spends most of her time underwater, where she feels safe and at home. She first learnt about the world of the free diver in 1988 when she saw the film The Big Blue, directed by Luc Besson and starring Jean Reno and Jean-Marc Barr in the main roles. The story was based loosely on a fierce real-life competition between two world champion free divers who attempted to reach the 100-metre underwater mark with just one breath.

One of the scenes I remember most vividly is when Barr, who plays the role of Jacques Mayol, finds that his dream world and his real-world life in the ocean have become so interwoven that his whole being yearns to become one with the drops of water in the sea, which will then embrace him comfortably like a watery blanket.

Traveller to water worlds

Hanli Prinsloo travels to water worlds that most of us can only dream of while splashing around in the pool on a Saturday afternoon, or when plucking up the courage to stick a toe into the freezing sea at the Cape. She has fins where her feet should be, she is more fish than flesh, and her true home is the ocean, a soundless wonder world that has become the greatest love of her life.

Hanli grew up on a horse farm outside Pretoria. “I learnt that we are all bound up with nature, that animals are truly intelligent creatures and deserve our respect – that we are better people if we spend time together in nature,” she says.

She started out making films with a socio-political focus on Africa, but as she spent more time in and under the water, she began to tell stories about the ocean and its inhabitants.

Hanli broke a number of free-diving records and was a member of South Africa’s elite women’s free-diving group. She can hold her breath for six minutes and can dive up to 65 metres with one breath, but says the reward of engaging with a playful whale or a magnificent tiger shark is so much greater”.

Photographs: Charlie Dailey

Read more about Hanli Prinsloo’s underwater adventures in the latest DEKAT September/October 2017 issue.