Hanli Prinsloo is a South African freediver and ocean advocate. She is the founder of I AM WATER, a Durban-based charity that seeks to reconnect South Africa's underserved urban youth with the ocean.
This last week we celebrated Heritage Day in South Africa. We have eleven official languages and at the best of times refer to ourselves as the Rainbow Nation. But with a history of colonialism and institutionalised racism and persistent, rampant inequality the rainbow doesn’t always glow very bright. The day before Heritage Day I took a visiting freediver for a dive in our local kelp forest. I’m white and she’s black and our shared love of the ocean brought us together first on social media then in real life, greeting each other as old friends would. While kitting up we chatted about our shared passion of sharing our oceans with as many South Africans as possible. About our own personal stories of finding freediving (me in Sweden, her in Bali), about coming home to South Africa and our two oceans and what deep freediving means to us. We have a shared language as we refer to the ocean as her / she. A close friend we have in common.
As we walk down to the water’s edge we pass one of the many shell middens along our coastline. Layers of harvested shells are visible in the eroded sand, holding the secret to a heritage beyond both my and my dive buddy’s roots. The middens speak of the very first people who lived on this southern tip of Africa, nomads living off the land and the sea. Humankind as we know it is believed to have originated in Southern Africa and these coastal foragers are likely to be ancestors to us all. Holding my carbon fibre fins clutched to my chest, sun block coating my white sunburn-prone face I stand and stare at these shell middens, considering my place on this tip of a beloved continent I call home. I feel both deeply connected and desperately removed from these first peoples. We turn our backs on the midden and continue the sandy path down to the crystal cold water waiting for us.
We wade in slowly, marvelling at the turquoise colour and sandy bottom, ‘almost like Thailand’ we joke as the 15 degrees Celsius water takes our breath away. Once we leave the shallows and get deeper into the kelp forest all thoughts of tropical beaches are swept away. This place is deeply African. This forest has something ancient and gritty that no tropical sea has ever shown me. The dark golden brown trunks beckon down to a reef strewn with a galaxy of pink, purple, orange urchins. Starfish the size of dinner plates striding along hunting for prey. Small, medium and large sharks flit in and out of the kelp and undulating octopus call this home. It is a whole world adjacent to the world we know.
There is a great groundswell to see these kelp forests appreciated and protected for what and who they are. The term ‘The Great African Sea Forest’ is gaining traction and films like My Octopus Teacher is capturing the imagination of a human species too long removed from its roots. If this terrible year has given us one gift it would be our renewed appreciation of nature, in particular the natural spaces close to us. From houseplants, to vegetable gardens to local parks beaches or mountains we have been reminded of just how much we need nature to thrive.
Taking a big breath I dive down into my second home, a forest as familiar to me as the street where I live. Turning onto my back I look at Zandi above me, a dive buddy guardian angel following my path through the forest. Her braids float out around her head like a halo. Feeling my body in water, my mammalian dive response even older than that of the first peoples who hunted shells where I am now – I feel at home. Heritage.
This column appears in ISSUE 15: Big little lives of Oceanographic Magazine
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