Hanli Prinsloo: ‘Fall in love with the ocean, to save it’

South African Hanli Prinsloo travels the world to capture images of life in the sea. She gives public talks about falling in love with the ocean, a necessary step to protect it. She also heads I Am Water, an organisation that teaches children about ocean conservation.

 hanli_prinsloo_article Besides running projects to teach children about ocean conservation in South Africa, Hanli Prinsloo also works in Bermuda and Ecuador. As part of her desire to educate people about marine life, she makes films about protecting sharks (Image: Screengrab via YouTube)


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Compiled by Melissa Javan

The success of each of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) would be the success of all, Hanli Prinsloo recently said at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The 17 SDGs include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and affordable and clean energy. They were agreed for the world by the United Nations in August to continue from the Millennium Development Goals.

Prinsloo, the chief executive officer of I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust, said Goal 14 – on “life below water” – resonated with why she devoted her life and work to ocean conservation. “But as a woman and an African, every single one of the 17 SDGs will affect some part of my life,” she wrote on the WEF’s site.

We are water

Prinsloo is an 11 times South African freediving record holder, filmmaker and avid ocean adventurer. In a TED Talk, she said: “I am nothing without the water inside me and the water around me.”

TED began in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged. Today TED Talks cover almost all topics, from science to business to global issues. It is owned by a non-profit, non-partisan foundation that believes in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.

Prinsloo reminded her TED audience that one’s body consisted of more than 70% water. “This is even though we focus on air moving in and out of us, we are water. We move around in a world of air so we believe we are air.

“Now we have become so used to breathing that we think it’s all we’ve done. But our first nine months of our lives we were in a watery world and we were born into this fantastically exciting world of smells and sights and sounds and air. All this air around us and then we forget about that watery world we come from,” she added.

Using just one breathe, Prinsloo said, she could swim to a depth of 56m in the ocean, just using her arms and legs. “On one breathe I’ve held my breath in water for over six minutes and I am not the best in the world. Using weights to assist us and floatation devices to come back up, free divers have been down to up to 200m.

“The most difficult thing I have learned is to trust myself and to trust what my body can do in water… The world record for men is over 11 minutes and that is not breathing pure oxygen. We know water; your body remembers water there’s a memory of water in us that we have just forgotten.”

She challenged the audience to “spend some time in the water inside of you, in the water we have at our disposal and yes come on in the water is good”.

“We are representatives of the ocean. I even see that with people who can’t swim who stand there and say to me: ‘I can’t swim but I love staring at the ocean.’ If you are an ocean gazer or explorer you’ve got that in you.”

Watch Prinsloo pledge to protect the ocean, and explain why she was moved to do so:

Why protect the ocean?

In her report to the WEF, Prinsloo spoke about a study by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London, which said 40% of marine populations had halved since 1970. Many of the fish humans ate had posted a staggering 74% drop in population.

“Oceans are the lifeblood,” she stressed. “Not only do 2.6 billion people depend on them for their primary source of protein, but more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by the salty masses, while they absorb over 30% of CO2.”

Chapter 5 of South Africa’s National Development Plan talks about protecting and enhancing the country’s environmental assets and natural resources. Prinsloo’s activism promotes this outcome of the plan. But it is not only a national issue; Goal 14 of the SDGs, she pointed out, had seven main targets, including a reduction of all kinds of marine pollution. It particularly mentioned land activities that resulted in marine pollution. Another target focused on community fishing practices and poverty.

“As an ocean advocate, I have to believe that we can achieve SDG14.”

More needed to be done to improve collaboration on this issue, especially between non-governmental organisations and governments, stakeholders and activists. “We know the challenges. The hard work now is to ensure that we work together to achieve the SDG14 targets – for the sake of the ocean and the planet.”

I Am Water

I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust was founded in South Africa in 2010. Its mandate is that humans and nature cannot survive without each other. “We believe ocean degradation is fundamentally due to human disconnect,” reads its website, “and the way to change the course for our oceans is engaging and educating individuals on their role for a healthy planet.”

The aim for Prinsloo and her team is to make people fall in love with the ocean so that they will want to protect it. The trust’s projects include taking children from previously disadvantaged communities such as Masiphumelele township in Cape Town to the beach, teaching them to swim, and educating them about marine life and how to protect the ocean.

Another project is raising awareness of the plight of shark populations around the world.

Watch Prinsloo explain the importance of protecting sharks:

Watch Prinsloo and others swim alongside sharks: