I am water

Imagine living right next to the ocean, but never going in. Over 1.5 million people travel to Cape Town, South Africa every year to enjoy the miles and miles of white, powder-like sand and turquoise waters. But for many of the 3.75 million locals here, the ocean is a thing of beauty to behold from afar. Limited interaction with the water has lead many natives to fear the ocean. They see it as a barrier, rather than an extension of their world.

For native South African and competitive freediver Hanli Prinsloo, being in the ocean always felt like a return to the beginning. A place of birth, and rebirth. A place where anyone can find a sense of peace and a new sense of connectedness with nature. She made it her mission to help others find that same unity.

Hanli and local South Africans learning to freedive.

HANLI’S STORY You might assume Hanli began freediving at a young age since she’s broken 11 records for South Africa. But growing up on a horse farm in landlocked Johannesburg didn’t provide many opportunities to get in the water, let alone plunge to the depths of the hundreds of feet she often finds herself exploring today. It wasn’t until she was in college and met a freediver who began coaching her that she fell in love with the sport that would shape her life.

Hanli’s description of freediving is simple. It’s “when you take one big breath and go into the water.” For her, one big breath lasts nearly six minutes, during which she dives straight down.

At 20 feet, her underwater world becomes silent, and she finds a meditative stillness.

At 80 feet, she looks for the giant turtles or whale sharks she’s met before.

At 120 feet, she remembers her childhood dream of becoming a mermaid.

Even then, she continues.

And it gets quieter.

And it gets more still.

And it’s here that Hanli says she finds her better self. Her best self, even.

With every dive, she feels more connected to the ocean, and she wanted to share that almost indescribable feeling with others while promoting conservation. In 2010, she teamed up with like-minded ocean lovers to establish the I AM WATER Trust under the belief that “ocean degradation is fundamentally due to human disconnect.” Through the trust, Hanli and her colleagues create opportunities for people to experience ocean wildernesses. A stronger connection with the ocean is only part of what these experiences provide. Venturing into the ocean for the first time empowers adults and kids from every background to realize their limitless potential. Overcoming fears together also has the power to break down cultural barriers, which the I AM WATER founders have witnessed in every location they teach.

Our blue planet may be divided by continents, but it is united by oceans.”

Go underwater with Hanli and hear more about her connection with the ocean.

I see a bigger picture and a bright future. A bright blue future.”

- Shireen, I AM WATER Office Manager

SHIREEN’S STORY: From the earliest age, we are learning from our mothers. How to smile. How to laugh. How to love. Our first words. Curiosity. Appreciation. Courage.

Native South African Shireen she grew up in a house where the ocean was feared, so she too learned to be afraid of it. When her daughter Gasina was born, she struggled to keep her fear of the water from affecting Gasina’s interest in swimming. Shireen’s husband was a good swimmer and encouraged Shireen to overcome her worries. But even when she joined I AM WATER as the office manager, she refused to go too far into the ocean. When Shireen’s husband told her he predicted 2017 would be their year, her hope swelled that maybe she’d finally tackle her fear and take more than a few steps into the water. Then her husband passed away suddenly, and her worries shifted to raising two kids alone. Shireen remembered what her husband said to her weeks before he passed, that she was capable of doing anything. For her, that was learning to see the ocean as an opportunity instead of a boundary. She knew conquering this fear would renew her strength and determination to move forward.

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Shireen and Hanli

Shireen’s relationship with Gasina has grown stronger as the two explore their newfound underwater world and the freedom it offers, together. Shireen says, “She can see that even though I am scared, I can be strong for her like her father was strong for her. She knows that I have her back, that I am strong enough to take care of her.”

GIRL’S STORY: For many kids born and raised in Cape Town, enjoyment of the ocean rarely goes beyond a shallow splash on a sunny day. Here, where some families earn as little as $250 per month, the mask, snorkel, and fins needed to explore the reefs and fish are luxury items. So learning to swim and dive seem like unnecessary skills. Hanli sees it as an opportunity to share everything the ocean has to teach. From basic swimming techniques, to facts about sea animals, to conquering fears and gaining confidence, and discovering a new world of possibilities.

Local participants in I AM WATER’s ocean experiences program.

When I started I AM WATER, I thought it would be a vessel for ocean conservation. I’m realizing it’s more like a meeting place for people with similar visions to come together and live out their dream.”

- Hanli Prinsloo, Founder I Am Water
Dive in with Hanli and the girls as they explore the reefs off Cape Town.

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The I AM WATER Foundation empowers women and girls around the world through transformative ocean experiences. Help them make a difference in someone’s life.

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The time spent in the water was much more than just a day at the beach. These amazingly brave women and girls experienced a transformation that renewed their outlook on the future. Take a look at some of the memorable moments below.

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