No place like home

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.

Words & photograph by Hanli Prinsloo

The past months I have spent time freediving in three different remote tropical destinations. Yes to bright corals, blindingly blue water, singing humpback whales, spotted whale sharks, playful dolphins, sleepy turtles and all the other friends you would expect to hobnob with off palm tree-lined islands. Now back on home soil in Cape Town I pull out my 5mm open-cell neoprene wetsuit (slightly mouldy from lack of use), my warm gloves and socks and step back into my garden. 

There are many reasons to visit Cape Town. From the world class culinary experiences to the mountains, the beaches and of course the wine. Tourists flock from all over the world and only a fraction pack their masks and snorkels… From where I live in a small artisanal fishing village just outside Cape Town it’s a five minute walk to the most spectacular forest most people have never heard of. Miles and miles of majestic trunks, swaying canopies and a busy bustle of inhabitants makes the kelp forests lining our rugged coastline my favourite aquatic destination. Let the humpbacks sing! Let the whale sharks enthral and the dolphins play… my cold water garden is my home. 

Unlike most spectacular marine experiences, you don’t even need to board a boat to access this wilderness. Sitting on a granite boulder on the southern edge of the False Bay coast I pull on my fins and mask. Quiet as an otter I slip into the chilly Atlantic, the cold water on my face makes me gasp then smile. This is home. I slowly make my way out of the shallow. Brushing the tops of golden fronds I peer down into a fairy tale world. Flickering sunlight filters down to the world below. One, two, three deep breaths. I fill my lungs one final time and kick down. Gliding along a silky kelp trunk I drop five, six, eight, ten metres down and hover. A silvery shimmer of breams settle and approach, large eyes fixed on me curiously. Slowly I kick my way through the dense forest, gliding over pink, red and purple urchins interspersed with garish orange sea stars and bright blue anemones. It’s as if a classroom of uninhibited kindergarteners were invited to decorate a room and all the paints got thrown around in wild abandon. 

A shadow falls on the bright spectacle and I look up to see a swimming fossil approach. A seven gill shark. A giant of the forest, a relic of a lost time. With puckered granny lips, limpid almond shaped eyes and elegant slate grey skin the slow motion fans of her tall tail fin glides her by, three metres of pure mystery. Like a ghost or a dream she is gone. I swim back up to breathe, back in sparkling sunlight gazing down into the beckoning forest. Suddenly the water beside me erupts with a splash and a swoosh and I catch a glimpse of sleek fur and whiskers. A cape fur seal comes in for a look. I take a quick gulp of air and dash down for a game of seal tag. He darts in close turning just before our faces collide and I do a quick back roll that makes him snort air through his nostrils and mimic my movement. He perfects my clumsy aquatic gymnastics into a display of such comic flexibility and agility I laugh out the last of my air and come back up to the surface gasping as the seal continues to dart and play beneath me, watching me with a beseeching look of ‘play, play, play!’ Recovering my breath I dive back down and we swoop through the undergrowth together, like a pair of parrots in a rainforest – for just a moment I know flight. Gravity forgotten I am part seal and this is our shared home. Minutes become hours in the forest and I watch a resident octopus stalk a crab, a variety of small cat sharks patrol the bottom and every now and again a shy penguin shoots by in search of deeper water and fish to feed its fluffy chick on land. 

This diverse community of creatures are my neighbours, just as much as the humans I share my street with. My beloved home town is affectionately known as the Mother City, the Cape Town of wine and food and Table Mountain and of course white sharks. “Aren’t you scared to spend so much time in the water here?” people ask, choosing to enter my magical garden in a cage to see what is labelled as a killer and experience a thrill. My city of wine, food, mountains and cages. If you’ve been following the news, you would’ve heard that our beautiful Mother City is now infamous for more than all this, now famous for being crime ridden and dangerous for women to walk alone. We have a lot of work to do for our communities on land, where poverty and inequality has caused such great despair that violence haunts our streets and homes. So no, I am not scared when I slip into the kelp forest, the largest community in Cape Town. Here I am safe and at peace, a world away from the realities we have created on land. So please, come visit us in our Cape Town, don’t just hear the stories of fear and violence, visit with your eyes open, choose to travel in a way that supports inclusion and don’t forget to pack your mask and fins!

Issue Nine
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This column appears in ISSUE 9: Dancing with orcas of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Nine
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess

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