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Dive into Inspiration: meet Forum and Summit Speaker Hanli Prinsloo

Hanli Prinsloo is a record breaking Freediver, Ocean Conservationist, Founder of I AM WATER and a Speaker at this year’s Blue Earth Forum and Summit.

We caught up with Hanli to hear about her life, inspiration and connecting people with the ocean through learning, inspiration and conservation.

Could you give us some background about your life and your passion for the oceans?

I grew up on a horse farm in Johannesburg, South Africa. My first connection was not with the oceans – just wild nature. I loved spending time in stillness and nature – it helped me feel  connected to myself. We had 2 rivers and a dam on the farm and my sister and I would pretend to be mermaids – we even had our own language! 

When I was a child, no one that I knew spoke of freediving and scuba diving never really attracted me. I was more attracted to the idea of being free underwater.

Eventually I moved to Sweden to study at the University of Gothenburg. I really appreciated the Scandinavian approach to nature. I met a freediver and we swam in a Fjord -20 metres down. It was pitch black, freezing cold but I fell in love with the stillness.  I knew this was what I wanted to do. Although I was freediving in quite adverse conditions, this experience equipped me for the future. Part of my love for freediving was also my personal journey into resilience and growth.

I then started documentary filmmaking. I was passionate about telling real stories about Africa. For me it’s a continent of huge opportunity and greatness of spirit. 

Although filmmaking was my job, free driving was my passion. I started competing to get better. I was fascinated by what my body could do, holding my breath for extended periods of time. Fascination and curiosity drove a deeper connection to oceans and animals.

I went from being a competitive freediver to being an ocean adventurer.

Exploring our shared planet drove a deep desire to be more actively involved in conservation.

The I AM WATER Trust is doing great work in educating local communities about the ocean. When and why did you decide to set it up?

I was seeing habitat protection but not seeing enough human relationship building with the ocean. In my own country, I was seeing children growing up every day with little connection to the Ocean.  And yet, through love and connection we learn to protect.  There are so many beautiful beaches in South Africa but many are still populated by the privileged few.

I recognised that family generations of fear about the Ocean needed to be dismantled. And asked myself how I can help break this cycle of disconnection.

In 2010, I was inspired to create I Am Water. The Trust is about developing programmes to bring underserved communities to the Ocean. 

I became a  trained free driving instructor and met my husband Peter Marshall – he had been in the US Navy and was qualified in lifeguarding. 

Together, we built various flagship programmes with local schools connecting pupils with the Ocean. Our Ocean Guardians Workshops are our flagship programme consisting of two full school days of ocean explorations spent at the beach practising yoga-inspired stretching & breath work & mindfulness, learning about the marine ecosystems and ocean challenges, the human body’s unique adaptation to being underwater and exploring the intertidal zones and rock pools with marine experts.

Learning how to be confident in deeper water, understanding the ocean better and of course seeing the incredible life our ocean holds. From majestic kelp forests, to octopuses, small cat sharks, brightly coloured urchins and anemones to an array of fish species. These workshops take place at various Marine Protected Area beaches in Cape Town to draw attention to the impact and importance of creating protected spaces where marine life can thrive.  

What would you say are the main aims of the trust?

I AM WATER believes in Ocean Conservation through transformative human ocean experience. ​Our mission is to ignite a movement of blue minds across the planet, to facilitate physical and emotional connections to the aquatic environment, to build understanding of the interdependence of healthy humans and healthy oceans and to influence behaviours to protect our global seas.

How does the trust help local communities benefit from the oceans, economically and socially?

We feel especially passionate about working with under-resourced coastal communities where, despite living walking distance to the shoreline, we often find young people who have never seen the world just beneath the waves.

Our team of local coaches is at the heart of the work we do at I AM WATER. Our coaching community comprises marine scientists, NSRI crew members, Lifeguards and incredible ocean conservation advocates who are from the communities that we work with. 

To establish a new relationship with the ocean for children,  our programmes are delivered by young people (18 – 34 years) that often come from the same communities we serve.

Our coaches are empowering role models for the young participants of our various programmes. We provide the coaching community with continued training in first aid, free diving, public speaking, photography and career development skills in order to equip each and every one of our coaches with the skills to develop on a personal and professional level too. 

What sort of programs does the trust oversee, and which one are you most proud of?

This is a two barrelled answer!  I am really proud of our Ocean Guardians Workshops – making oceans accessible to children. Secondly I am so proud that we’ve cracked the code on how to make this scale and transferable to everyone across the world through the Oceans For All Alliance.

What plans do you have for the future, personally and for the trust?

Oceans for All Alliance is a new ambitious programme that gives individuals the agency to run programmes in their own regions. We can now offer this training that makes the learning journey more efficient as it offers 6-8 weeks of online training backed up with in person training in Cape Town. We’ve already run this with 5 different organisations and we’re fundraising to do more so that cost doesn’t become a barrier.

Our Ocean Travel freediving trips  also help fund our programmes. We work with business and political leaders and believe this experience could also help create change amongst global decision makers. We are also  hoping to go into partnership with travel brands to create more advocacy travel. 

And we are in the process of creating a range of sustainable masks for freediving called Egalas!

As a Blue Earth Summit speaker – what are the key messages you want to convey?

There is so much to share around ocean connection and how we can practise this in our daily lives. Also I want to remind people that a passion can become a career and way of living. Putting passion and a sense of the natural world drives my motivation. 

What appeals to you about Blue Earth Summit this year?

The coming together of like minded people with similar visions. Often the blue economy is touted as a solution but Blue Earth Summit helps people talk about  the positive impact of working together across sectors.

Hanli Prinsloo will be speaking at Blue Earth Summit in London between 16-18 October 2024. For more information check out

This Q&A first appeared on H20 News


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