Freediving record holder Hanli Prinsloo will make you think deeply about your purpose

Speaking at the UK's Emerge conference for young entrepreneurs seeking social change, Hanli Prinsloo founder of I AM WATER gave the audience a new perspective on their own capacity to defy naysayers, and achieve the impossible. 


Humans have a mammalian dive response – an inner seal – which means if we set our mind to it we can dive to more than 100m below sea level. In other words we have an epic potential to achieve what seems impossible. 

In fact, diving more than 50m deep had been scientifically defined as impossible until people started doing it, and proving the opposite. This is what students and young entrepreneurs, interested in tackling some of the vast challenges the world faces through innovation and entrepreneurship, heard yesterday at the keynote speech at Emerge 2014 by Hanli Prinsloo, founder of I AM WATER.

The second you put your face in water, your heart rate slows down, blood vessels in your arms and legs constrict and flush blood to your core, your spleen squirts oxygen rich hemoglobin into your blood giving you the capacity to stay under water, like a seal. Many of us studying, working in the city or engaging in other land-based activity never let our inner seal reach its full potential.

There is a fine line when walking between one’s passion and one’s ego.

But for Hanli Prinsloo, understanding the limits of her own body was a fascination, which brought her to where she is today, founder and CEO of I AM WATER, an organisation, which promotes ocean conservation through human experience. On her way there, she has broken freediving records, 11 in total, and achieved a personal best of holding her breath under water for six minutes. But the world of competitive freediving wasn't where she found her purpose, she explained, ruminating on the dangers of ego.

"There is a fine line when walking between one’s passion and one’s ego. The competitions were not as rewarding as I thought they would be. And courting the ego is a dangerous past time, in a very physical sense when you’re freediving, if you're not listening to your limits. I found out I wasn't really driven to be better than anyone else," she said.

So she abandoned her pursuit of 'being better' at freediving and followed her dream of exploring the ocean, which holds some of the world's last few wildernesses. "The animals became my greatest fascination," she said. And the magical moments she enjoyed with them defined her future path. "I held my breath long enough for a sperm whale to get curious," she told the audience as she showed an image of herself swimming alongside a human-sized grey whale. 

"We played a game, he dived up and I dived down, and we kept doing this, while the parents were right below us preying on giant squid," she told the audience. In another image Prisloo swims alongside a tiger shark. Sharing some inside knowledge on how to swim with sharks she said, "don't swim away, then they don't think you're food".

But Prisloo's willingness to befriend a shark doesn't mean she is fearless. One of her most frightening moments was when she dived down deep below sea level, eyes-closed, waiting until she'd been swimming long enough to reach the lights positioned for her so that she could see what creatures were around her. But when she opened her eyes it was pitch black. Convinced that she had gone blind she nearly let herself drift off, not wanting to resurface. But then she had an encouraging thought, she knew a friend with a guide dog, she could just get a guide dog and she would be fine. She changed her mind and swam quickly to the surface.

When something you love is threatened it galvanizes another level of action in you.

It turned out that the lights had run out of battery, she wasn't blind. But she had discovered the capacity of her own mind to stand in the way of her dreams. "It is the stories you tell yourself that matter, those stories can make you choose whether or not to come back up," she said.

Now it is Prisloo's ambition and full time occupation to protect the ocean and make sure people have access to water. "When something you love is threatened it galvanizes another level of action in you," she said. "We come from water, our planet is blue, your body is the same percentage of water as the earth," she said, asserting her strong belief that it would be madness to do anything other than seek to protect our blue world.

Prisloo gave some hard learned lessons from her freediving experience on the power of the mind to influence what we are capable of, and the danger of our ego's ability to steer us away from meaning and purpose. She also left the audience full of confidence in the human potential to succeed against the odds.


Photo credit: Zip250