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When you were a kid, did you ever take a really big breath in the bath, pinch your nose, close your eyes and sink under the water? Do you remember the quiet as sounds became muffled, the shifting colours and shapes inside your eyelids, that feeling of being contained? That’s just how it feels when you free dive – although the ocean has way more to offer.

The human body is perfectly created for diving on one breath. We share an adaptation called the mammalian dive response or diving reflex with all aquatic mammals; it’s almost as if we have a small seal living inside us waiting to come out and play. As your face touches the water, your heart rate slows down, blood is shunted away from arms and legs to make sure your brain has enough oxygen and your spleen constricts, flushing new haemoglobin-rich blood into the system, as the little seal sits up, shakes out its fur, yawns and gets ready to dive.

When I was 19 I took up free diving. For me, it’s the perfect expression of my love affair with the ocean. Just like a whale, dolphin or seal, I take one big breath, kick down and explore the magical fairyland that lies beneath the waves.

Every hour spent in the water I become more aquatic. I practise on a rope, so I can easily play with the majestic creatures that live in this big blue that covers our planet. I’ve learnt how not to bore a spinner dolphin, how to meet and greet a great blue whale, how to entertain an acrobatic seal and how to glide with a manta ray.

For deep dives, I wear a monofin. Like a mermaid tail, it joins my feet together and I use it to propel me down. One, two, three, four … 20 kicks until I pass my neutral buoyancy and start falling. Letting go of light, air, doubt and fear, I let my body fall into the ocean.

It’s so still. I close my eyes and my fingers glide along the rope, which orientates me. Equalise, equalise, relax: a small mantra I play over and over in my head. Below 50 metres I feel the pressure increase, my chest is compressed by a vast ocean embrace. Then I’m there, at the bottom of the rope.

I open my eyes, give one pull to let my safety diver at the surface know I’ve turned and start my ascent. The water gets brighter, I get lighter, until I break the surface and take a gulp of fresh air.

Do a free-diving course with Hanli Prinsloo

If you’d like to photograph fishes of the deep water or learn to hold your breath longer, join Hanli on a free-diving course, cell 082-213-6066 or email


Article by Hanli Prinsloo, photograph by Jean-Marie Ghislain

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