Despite growing up on a horse farm in the middle of South Africa, Hanli always dreamed of being a mermaid.
This obsession with the underwater world led her to a career in competitive freediving – during which she broke 11 national records – and afterwards compelled her to set up I Am Water, an ocean conservation trust dedicated to protecting the world's seas through human experience. As part of her work she now travels the world educating children about the ocean and teaching people to freedive.
We spoke to Hanli about her passion for freediving, how travellers can help to protect our seas, and the best moment of her life so far.
Where was your last trip?
I just got back to Cape Town from a small island in the South Pacific called Niue, famous for its responsible whale tourism and having the bluest water you’ll ever find. It’s one of my favourite freediving destinations in the world!
Where is your next trip?
Madagascar; I’m heading to another small island called Nosy Be, but this time to swim with blue and whale sharks.
Aisle or window seat?
Window, preferably at a bulkhead (the first row of a seating section).
Favourite city or country or region?
I’ve been around the world many times but coming home to Cape Town with its amazing kelp forest-filled oceans, mountains everywhere and great communities is still my favourite.
What is your very first travel memory?
I grew up on a horse farm outside of Johannesburg in South Africa, over eight hours from the nearest ocean. This made our road trips to the coast extra special. I remember my parents packing up our old VW minivan, making a bed in the back for my sister and I the night before, and carrying us out to the car around 2am to start the drive. We'd wake up at dawn to see the countryside flying past then peer out the windows for that first glimpse of the sea.
How does someone who grew up on a horse farm in Johannesburg end up as a record-breaking freediver?
From very early on I loved two things above all others – swimming underwater and animals. My sister and I spent hours dreaming of being mermaids, swimming underwater in the farm dams and rivers and holding our breath in the bath. After school I moved to Sweden to study and it was there that I was introduced to freediving by sailor and freediver Sebastian Naslund. Months of training in a cold Swedish fjord prepared me mentally for the rigours of competitive freediving.
What is it about freediving that appealed to you?
Freediving to me is the most natural way of being in the ocean. The stillness of exploring on one breath, the curious reaction of the marine creatures and the absolute sense of belonging is overwhelming. The human body has the same adaptations for diving as whales, dolphins and seals have. We share this mammalian dive response that truly invites us into a life aquatic. Freediving is so much more than a sport, it is a lifestyle – an approach to living on this blue planet. I love that.
After retiring from competitive freediving you set up the I Am Water foundation, what are the foundation’s aims and what compelled you to start it?
Returning to South Africa from my studies, work and competitive career in Sweden and around the world, I was appalled by how few South Africans had access to the ocean. Even though South Africa is blessed with a beautiful and extensive coastline, most South Africans cannot swim and even fewer have ever had the opportunity to see the world beneath the waves. I started I Am Water to share educational ocean experiences with kids from underserved coastal communities. We believe in the ethos ‘you protect what you love’ and as these kids learn to fall in love with their oceans we see a young army of ocean guardians emerge.
As part of your foundation’s work you lead free diving tours across the world, where is your favourite place to freedive?
We started I Am Water Ocean Travel to support the fundraising for the foundation and it’s been an absolute joy to see people’s enthusiasm grow about our tours. The four destinations we currently host trips to were selected due to being personal favourites: Madagascar for freediving with whale sharks, Southern Mozambique with dolphins, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez with tornadoes of fish and the tiny South Pacific Island of Niue for the bluest blue deep water, coral reefs and to swim with humpback whales.
Can anyone learn to freedive?
Absolutely! Our trips are especially structured to invite total beginners, but also offer deep training opportunities for more experienced freedivers. Given seven to 10 days of immersion in breath-work, depth and equalisation training, yoga sessions and a good bit of practice, yes, anyone can learn to freedive!
Swimming in open water is a common fear for many people, what’s your biggest phobia? Heights? Spiders?
It’s so true seeing the layers of fear people hold for open water! The only thing in the ocean I am afraid of are blue bottle jellyfish. Through years of exposure, surfing and freediving, I have developed an allergy to them and the symptoms are excruciating. Despite this, what I still fear more is the lack of global leadership taking environmental issues into serious consideration.
Is plastic waste the major threat facing our oceans today?
Plastic waste is definitely one of the greatest threats to our ocean. The conversation has been very focused on single plastic use in the last 12-18 months which is great. But sometimes I worry that it takes too much of the conversational space for ocean conservation. Other serious threats to our ocean today include overfishing, the effects of climate change (both ocean acidification and the loss of coral reefs due to rising sea water temperatures) and the loss of marine ecosystems due to unsustainable coastal developments and aquaculture.
In your opinion, what’s the easiest change an average traveller can make to help our oceans?
Travel with a good-quality refillable water bottle that can last your whole trip. Be sure to check that seafood served on your travels are both sustainable species and sustainably caught. Pack your reef-friendly sunblock wherever you go. Support hotels, tours and other travel industry suppliers that make a point of being more conscious.
Having broken records in sport and dived in some incredible places around the world, what would you say has been the best moment of your life?
My first experience with a pod of friendly dolphins is definitely a highlight! I was in Mozambique training for depth and a pod of spinner dolphins surrounded our boat on the run out to the blue. I begged the skipper to let me jump in the water, took one breath and rocketed down to the seabed wearing my monofin. Within seconds I was surrounded by clicking and whistling as the dolphins spun around me, fascinated by this pale visitor who moved just like them. I looked around at these playful, curiously intelligent creatures and vowed to do everything in my power to protect their environment and freedom. I live for these moments of ocean connection, of sharing space and time with these magnificent animals. We truly live on a shared planet.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
The giants of the cold North! It is my dream of dreams to spend proper time getting to know the narwhals, orcas and beluga whales in the Arctic… let’s go!
For more information about Hanli, the work of her foundation and her organised freediving trips visit the I Am Water website.