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A real life mermaid explains the siren call of the deep

 The Big Issue South Africa 24 October 2019

Hanli Prinsloo is a South African free diver. She reaches the depths of the sea to test the limits of human endurance. It is an alien environment and full of risks, but there is no way she can resist the draw of the deep ocean. (1677 Words) - By Anna Helland & Leanne Farish


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Hanli Prinsloo free diving.Photo: Thomas P. Peschak

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Hanli Prinsloo.Photo: Thomas P. Peschak

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Hanli Prinsloo free diving (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Annelie Pompe

A body lies face down in a pool. Dozens of people stand around, anxiously casting glances at their watches as the minutes pass. All is deathly quiet, the atmosphere fraught with tension as eyes flick between the clock and the body in the water.

Under the surface, Hanli Prinsloo is completely relaxed. From the tips of her toes to the slow beat of her heart, she knows that one false thought or release of unnecessary energy could break this calm trance. And to beat her national record, Prinsloo needs to be as still as death.

Prinsloo is a free diver, an athlete who dives as deep, as far or as long as possible on one single breath of air. She competes in competitions like the one she's in the pool for now, called static apnoea, and five other competitive free-diving disciplines. Prinsloo has conquered all, making her the first South African to hold the record in the six competitive free-diving disciplines at one time.

Her decade-long career as a competitive free-diver has been marked by victory after victory. In October last year, Prinsloo set her eleventh South African record in free-diving. The 63-metre dive took her two minutes and 20 seconds. It rounded off a spectacular competitive season during which she also set a national record of 42 metres, swimming breast stroke down and back up, and 52 metres free immersion, where divers pull down a rope and back.

"I love that feeling of suspension in water," says Prinsloo. That, the mind control needed to override the body's natural reflexes to gasp for air and the euphoria of pushing through physical barriers are what feed her addiction to the extreme sport.

Being a woman helps, too, says Prinsloo, who points out that the world record for breath-holding is higher for women than for men. She attributes this to mental strength being more important in free-diving than physical endurance.

"People become stressed when they are underwater and begin to feel that stomach lurch and need for air," she explains. "Women are better at this; we have a higher pain threshold, and are generally tougher than men."

State-of-the art equipment also helps drive her to the ocean's depth. For deep ocean dives Prinsloo is strapped into a mono-fin - a plastic version of a mermaid's tail. She is kitted in a full body, custom-made wetsuit where not a millimetre of water resistance can slip between suit and skin, making her lithe body even more streamlined.

Through rhythmic, wave-like movements from her hips to her chest, Prinsloo propels her body through the water, using as little energy as possible.

It's a movement that mimics seals, or fabled water-dwelling creatures, and it's one she has been practising her whole life.

Aquatic craving

Prinsloo grew up on a horse farm near Cape Town, many miles from the ocean. To quench her aquatic craving, she and her sister would run to the nearest swimming pool or river to play mermaids.

At 31, Prinsloo is still playing mermaids, only with better technique, and she does it for a living.

"In a way, it's been following me my whole life and to do it as a profession is just a way, a tool, of accessing the ocean," Prinsloo says. "It allows me to access my inner seal."

When she was 18, Prinsloo enrolled in her first scuba-diving course. Excited to be in the water and closer to the world she had only imagined, Prinsloo was soon disappointed.

"I found it so boring and frustrating, and I hated not being able to move properly and the limitation of rules; 'you can't do this, you can't do that'."

In 1999, she discovered free-diving while living in Sweden, and hasn't been away from the water since. "I love the freedom of

Mammalian diving reflex

As the seconds tick away to hit the three-minute mark on the watches of her poolside spectators, Prinsloo begins to feel a lurch in her diaphragm - her body's way of telling her she needs air, now. But Prinsloo knows she needs to fight this reflex for at least another three minutes.

Through years of training, practice and competition, Prinsloo has strengthened her mammalian diving reflex - the reflex in mammals which optimises respiration to allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time. The mammalian diving reflex is strong in aquatic mammals, such as seals, otters and dolphins, but only exists in a weaker version in other mammals, including humans.

Every time Prinsloo hits sea water, this now-heightened reflex kicks into gear. Her heart rate begins to slow, by up to 25%. Soon her capillaries and veins begin to constrict, stopping blood circulation to her extremities as blood works its way back toward her core. Finally, she feels the blood shift, where blood volume in the chest is higher and able to widen her lung's capacity to hold oxygen.

This response optimises her ability to survive on very little oxygen and allows Prinsloo to stay underwater for much longer. It also helps her body deal with the dramatic temperature and pressure changes the deeper into the abyss she goes.

But then comes the trigger point, where the body says "no more - need air", causing a lurching, desperate push from the diaphragm to kick-start the lungs and heart to start pumping blood. Panic signals from all over her body surge to her brain.

But she's trained for this, her body has been taught to use as little energy as possible while drawing as much oxygen into her lungs as she can, using breath holding techniques passed down to her from her mentor and practised religiously each day.

Extreme meditation

Training for Prinsloo includes long hours of yoga, stretching and swimming, focusing on deep breathing and breath-hold stretches of the lungs.

"Yes, I train hard, but it's also about extreme meditation. It's about finding a quiet place," she says.

Hours before every competition Prinsloo begins her routine of stretches and yoga. In order for her body to be ready for the deep plunge she needs to be relaxed and save her muscle energy. She needs to be ready for three minutes of bliss and then another three minutes of panic under water.

"You have to feel and accept the pain and be able to control it," says Prinsloo, who takes pleasure in this challenge.

"I love the feeling of pushing through the discomfort, of having the painful feeling and pushing your body to do more. Free-diving is conditioning the body to think that something uncomfortable is okay."

As her body plunges for the sea bottom, or faces down in a pool, that quiet meditative space can sometimes turn dark and emotional.

"What's exciting about free-diving is that it forces me into a place where I have to deal with everything that comes up. The breath hold brings up a lot of things - fears, worries and failures."

Discomfort - physical and mental - is a good thing for Prinsloo; it pushes her to new heights. "There is no growth in comfort, and that is how I grow."

As you read this, Prinsloo is pushing herself even further out of the comfort zone by competing in the 2011 AIDA Individual Depth World Championships taking place in Greece.

Even if she doesn't bring home yet another trophy, as long as her mono-fin is  propelling her deeper into the big blue, Prinsloo is content.

"This is a spiritual journey for me. If I didn't have to sleep on land, I would
spend all my time in the water playing mermaids."


We are all water

Champion free-diver Hanli Prinsloo spends much of her life in water. So it's not too surprising then that she spends much of the time she's out the water campaigning for ocean conservation - including posing for this issue's cover to raise awarenes of over fishing and ocean depletion. Leanne Farish spoke to Prinsloo about her passion for conservation.

Q: What is the I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust?

A: I founded the I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust with some ocean-loving friends to meet a need I found for ocean conservation through human experience. What I've experienced through teaching people to free-dive is that once you've introduced somebody into the ocean environment and they've experienced it for themselves, they will want to protect it. We work with both education and awareness projects to get people into the water and to experience it and, through that, to protect it.

Q: What is South Africa's biggest ocean conservation challenge?

A: We have a lot of challenges inshore: pollution - from solid waste to chemical and water waste - and poaching. Our Marine Protected Areas also aren't well protected. That's one of the things we want to work on through the Trust; to see more Marine Protected Areas pronounced and to see the protected areas we do have actually protected.

Q: What is special about South Africa's marine life?

A: Our coast is incredibly special. We're the Southern tip of a very big continent, we have two oceans meeting along our coastline and that's completely unique. On the one side we have tropical waters that bring with them the fish and corals, and on the other side we have the extreme cold water with the upwelling and the incredibly rich sea life that the upwelling brings. We have incredible predator populations, our great whites and all our other shark species, and we have all the different whales and dolphins that visit our coastline. Plus the sardine run that comes once a year, seal colonies, penguins….We have so much that is unique and that's also something I want the Trust to do, to really impress on the hearts of South Africans to realise what we have and to want to protect it and to feel possessive over it.

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