“To wake up in the morning and feel optimistic – to get up and smile and stretch and look out at the sea and go, ‘I can do this. I can do this for you’ – that is way more powerful than looking out and going, ‘Oh my God, it’s so heavy. It’s all too late.’ I really believe that.”
There’s something profoundly refreshing about optimism.
Especially in this country. Especially in these times. So this is what perhaps, amidst all the stories of daring and adventure, that stands out the most: that Hanli Prinsloo, world-champion free diver and founder of I Am Water, considers herself a ‘deeply optimistic’ person.
Hanli’s outlook isn’t driven by naive idealism – but by the possibility of change. And perhaps, at its baseline, by love. A love for the ocean, as deep and unending as its depths, that you see cause to fight for it.
And it feels like a sounding call to despondency. To a dead-in-the-water apathetic approach to apocalypse.
“I really feel that hopelessness spells the death of everything we care for. Because if we don’t believe that there’s hope anymore, then why would we act differently? Why would we change our behaviour if it’s already too late anyway?”
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, who recently made waves for revolutionising his company – making ‘Earth the only shareholder’ – expressed the sentiment that “the cure for depression is action”. And there’s a parallel here. Or a paradox. That these two polar forces – optimism, and depression – compel us to change. And yet both are true. The darkest depths drive us to radically change our lives. And the greatest joys, that sense of optimistic awe, equally compel us to move, to shake. And to protect.
“If you really take time to be in nature, you’re compelled to remain optimistic. Whether it’s standing in the rain or hearing the waves crashing or diving down underwater and seeing that biodiversity and life. Nature just keeps transforming and giving and thriving.”
Hanli’s own affinity with water started early – growing up on a horse farm, where she quickly learnt of the incredible importance of water from the two rivers that ran through the land, and a dam that on occasion dried up if there wasn’t enough rain. A dam where she and her sister spent afternoons playing, diving deep and pretending to be mermaids.
“That connection really came from an early age… loving that silence and that feeling of weightlessness and stillness and that holding [of] the breath even when it burns. I’ve enjoyed that from very early on.”
And from these simple adventures – ones of childlike wonder – there have grown moments of incredible majesty; vast adventuring and tales of which most can only imagine.
“I’ll never forget the first time I was surrounded by a pod of dolphins – being observed and scanned and clicked and welcomed in. And just feeling, ‘wow’ – there’s so much beauty out there and there’s so much trust… We have so much good that we should do, and could do, and there are so many pure life forms out there that we affect… [and from that] I really just had this sense of, ‘I would do anything – anything – for this to be protected.”
To experience life between the waves – to experience the ocean at all – is both a pleasure and a privilege. Because for many, the ocean isn’t an accessible space. It was this that compelled Hanli to found I Am Water in 2010.
“All through my competitive freediving career I felt so privileged to be learning so much about my body and so much about the ocean through what being underwater offers us. And it always made me sad coming home to South Africa and seeing how much South Africans have access to the ocean and how it’s very much divided by communities and demographics. And so much of it is a throwback to beaches not being accessible to all and swimming pools not being accessible to all. So starting I Am Water was really about creating opportunities for young South Africans to have access to the ocean. It’s so important for us to realise that what we think is normal – to be able to swim, to be able to safely run into the water on the beach – is not normal for so many South Africans, and I Am Water is a vessel for changing that.”
Experience. Optimism. Depression. Love.
Drivers for change. Movers to action. Such that influenced Hanli to make another profound change in her life. A first – and last – spearfishing expedition, that became the last time she ever ate a fish.
In South Africa, to be a good spearfisherman, you need to be a good freediver. But, as I realised floating above the kelp, my speargun dangling limply from my wrist – being a good freediver, is not enough to be a good spearfisherman… I am not a natural hunter. I am an observer. To switch from observing to stalking didn’t seem to happen naturally for me. It took me several long dives, self-sabotaged misses, self-talk and a bruised sternum from reloading the speargun before I actually shot my first fish. My only fish…
Excerpt taken from ‘Killing Fish.’ First published in DIVESITE Issue 3, 2011
“I do think that the old saying, ‘when we know better we do better’, is true. But I also think that we act when we experience things on a deep level. And for me that happened with that fish.”
Experiences like these can be transformative – in the way they help us to connect. To rewild. To remind us of what we need to fight for. Of what’s at stake. But they’re also a way to bridge the gap between concepts that might seem abstract, larger-than-life. Overfishing. Imminent sea life extinction. Ocean pollution. Climate crisis. Issues that are large and looming. But where is the inroad? How do you start? Perhaps putting your head beneath the waves. Seeing creatures great. Or small. Seeing a piece of plastic float by. Querying this.
“Being in Indonesia, and diving in what should be a pristine ocean with manta rays, and seeing this manta ray open its mouth and plastic going in and I was literally swimming next to it trying to push this plastic out of its way as it was filter feeding. That to me was just so shocking… The rest of that dive I didn’t even swim with the manta rays anymore – I was just swimming around with this huge bag, just pulling all this plastic out of the water. It was just so horrific to see and that suddenly for me brought it home – that ‘aha’, plastic in the ocean is a real issue affecting the animals I love. So needless to say I avoid plastic where I can… and then just in general – thinking [about] our lifestyle choices… what car you drive, what products you buy, the durability of the products you buy, what you eat – all those things matter.”
And it does matter. The little choices that we make. The small actions that amount to bigger ones. The times where we look for agency – and use it.
And above all, perhaps, remaining optimistic. Remaining in awe.
Recognising your power. Recognising your privilege. The teetering right, the radical responsibility, that comes with being on a planet with finite resources. One that offers us such bountiful gifts. And which asks so very little of us in return.
Photographs taken by I Am Water co-founder, Peter Marshall
I Am Water is an NPO that uses environmental education as a tool to inspire the next generation of conservationists. They work with under-resourced coastal communities who, despite their proximity to the shoreline, have often never explored the world beneath the waves. Their mission rests on the belief that “those who have opened their eyes underwater, those who have seen the beauty, the majesty, and the great marine creatures of this world, will learn to love and to protect it.”
Click here to find out how you can support the good work that they do.