Adventure / Conservation

A journey from fear to love

Words by Hanli Prinsloo
Photographs by Peter Marshall

“How many of you live walking distance from the ocean?” Hands shoot up. “How many of you have worn a mask before and seen what is underwater?” Heads shake and eyes grow large.

Despite having more than 2,000km of coastline, famous Olympic swimmers and world-renowned surfers, South Africa has some of the most severe drowning statistics in the world. Its citizens’ relationship with water is neither positive nor fair. In the great lottery of birth I was lucky to be born white in Apartheid South Africa. I learnt to swim before the age of three. I spent holidays by the beach and had a swimming pool at home. At nineteen I moved to Sweden to study and in a deep fjord I discovered freediving. Far away from national unrest, trans-generational guilt and a family torn apart by politics, I found peace – a world beneath the waves where my thoughts slowed down, my body became weightless and I had space. Space to consider. Space to celebrate. Space to mourn. I immersed myself in the world of freediving. I spent long, cold winters swimming up and down in a swimming pool underwater increasing my breath-hold; midnight sun summers on the granite rocks of the Swedish west coast diving deep along a rock wall, learning about my body in water. As my fascination with what was possible on one breath grew so did the understanding of the aquatic adaptation in humans. Research around the Mammalian Dive Response increased and we allowed scientists to measure our lungs, monitor our oxygen saturation and even observe our spleens during breath-holds. I learnt that our bodies remember water. As my face touches the water my heart rate slows down. As the carbon dioxide in my body rises my blood flow centralises to my core. As my body preserves and requires oxygen my spleen constricts, releasing oxygen-rich haemoglobin. I revelled in my aquatic abilities. Twenty, 40, 50, 60 metres deep on one breath. One hundred, 120, 140, 150 metres in the pool. We have the same Mammalian Dive Response that allows whales, dolphins and seals to dive to great depths and hold their breaths for hours on end. My body surprised and enthralled me as I learned to trust this inner seal.


I moved home to South Africa after many years of freediving competitions, big marine animal interactions and a career in documentary filmmaking seeking stories of hope and transformation. Exploring my own coastline underwater for the very first time, I was struck by how few people were in the water – really in the water. Not just wetting toes, or a quick dip or even a surf. Looking, seeing, exploring. And looking a little closer, 25 years after our hard-won political democracy, the ocean remained a desperately undemocratic place. Not knowing the first thing about the non-profit world but a lot about what the ocean had done for me, I started I AM WATER Ocean Conservation.

On a white sand beach in a marine protected area along the Cape coastline 30 grade seven students lie flat on their backs with the sun on their faces learning how to breathe slow and deep. I AM WATER coach Khanyisa counts their breaths in… and out. Slowing down the breath and the heart rate, learning how to take a very big breath in, and hold. Visualising a dive underwater the young explorers are encouraged to hold their breath a little longer, imagine a world underneath the surface where a curious fish makes eye contact, or a mysterious octopus reaches out a tentacle. A first introduction to a new world. Our two-day workshops always start with a yoga stretching and breathing relaxation session followed by a short presentation on what there is to find in the vibrant inter-tidal zone, under the surface and in the kelp forests. Most of the children know of a family member or a friend who has drowned. On average three people drown in South Africa every day. Here, introducing children to the ocean is not only about fostering young ocean guardians, but very much about personal development and the overcoming of trans-generational fears.

Photograph by Charlie Dailey

Several studies have been done on the healing effect nature has on children, especially children from urban and underserved communities. The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and various psychologists have found that urban youth have been shown to find peace, freedom, and calm in nature and that nature is associated with a safe place to escape violence and bullying. Drawing on many of the findings in these studies we have built our Ocean Guardians workshops; allowing for time to play and be independent, encouraging curiosity and courage, fostering helpfulness and teamwork. One thing that struck us was that none of these studies were done in purely aquatic environments with complete immersion. Neuroscientist Dr Wallace Nichols has done years of research on what he calls the ‘blue mind’ (also the name of his book). He writes that even just looking at a picture of water can do wonders for our brains. “Water unleashes the uninhibited child in all of us, unlocking our creativity and curiosity,” he writes. If we are so certain of the positive effect water has on us, and with all the research that shows what nature can do for children and considering the plight of our oceans, why aren’t there more organisations focusing their work on getting urban and underserved youth to experience complete immersion in the ocean? And the short answer is: it’s complicated. Speaking at a philanthropy forum in Sweden years ago about I AM WATER, the tragic lack of ocean access and the work I hoped to do in our coastal communities, a man in a fancy suit looked me in the eye and said: ‘But what if I give you money to get kids in the water and someone drowns?”

Khanyisa gently guides the grade sevens back to the surface and into a seated position, asking them what they felt during the yoga and breath work. Relaxed, calm and happy are words that pop up again and again. Next up is a fun and interactive presentation on the flora and fauna living in our blue backyard. The children learn that a barnacle is a kind of crustacean, a limpet is a farmer, a whelk a fearless hunter and that an octopus has three hearts. Touching on topics of overfishing, poaching and what a marine protected area is we plant the seeds for ongoing conservation conversations. The class is now split into three groups: rock pool exploration, beach clean-up and snorkel.

With the words of the suited sceptic ringing in my ears it took I AM WATER a long time to scale beyond my fears…

Read the full article, A journey from fear to love, in Issue 06 of Oceanographic Magazine – out now, available worldwide. 

Photographs by Peter Marshall

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