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Kids on the Reef returns for a third year

Royal Gazette
Monday, July 8, 2013

By Jessie Moniz Hardy
Published Jul 08, 2013 at 8:00 am

Freediver and coach Hanli Prinsloo leads the young explorers deeper down. (Photo by Peter Marshall)

On the way out to North Rock the young people in the boat started to wonder why they had come. Despite having lived on an Island their whole lives, most of them had never been out of sight of land. They were nervous and spent the ride worrying about currents, sharks, the weather, and the depth of the ocean.

“I’m not getting in,” most of them decided on the ride, but once they get to North Rock there was no question of getting in. Into the water they leaped.

“Whoa! It’s really pretty!” one child said looking down into the water with amazement. Another said: “Wow. Look there’s a blue headed wrasse and its wives. There’s a parrot fish!”

The children were part of the new Kids on the Reef programme, and their wonder and excitement was exactly what the programme was about. Kids on the Reef, funded by Catlin Bermuda, is aimed at young people who would not normally have the chance to experience Bermuda’s outer reefs. It was done in conjunction with the Bermuda Zoological Society (BZS).

A view from the bottom. Training around the freediving
buoy. (Photo by Peter Marshall)

Fifteen new ocean lovers. (Photo by Peter Marshall)

The programme’s instructor was South African freediving champion Hanli Prinsloo.

“I love seeing the journey that happens from fear to joy,” said Ms Prinsloo. “That is something you carry with you in life. Once you overcome something you feared you start asking what else do you fear, and what else can you overcome. That is what is so valuable with these experiences where fear is overcome because you are never the same again. We have seen their confidence growing so much. That is phenomenal. Water and the ocean has that power to deliver transformational experiences.”

Ms Prinsloo can dive down to 65 metres in one breath and can hold her breath for at least six minutes. (And no, she does not have brain damage as a result.) She writes, is a freelance filmmaker and runs a programme called I Am Water that has a conservation focus and aims to bring the joy of submersion to people across South Africa, and now Bermuda.

She first came to Bermuda last year to speak about her free diving and I Am Water at the TedX conference. It was there that she met Graham Pewter chief executive officer (CEO) of Catlin. Mr Pewter was so inspired by her talk that he decided to bring Ms Prinsloo back to work with Bermuda’s young people. This year, over a two-week period, Ms Prinsloo worked with over 70 children ages eight to 16 years old through the new Catlin Kids on the Reef initiative.

Ms Prinsloo’s has a mind, body, spirt approach, so students in the programme started off each day with an hour and a half of yoga and meditation. Later in the post mortem, most of the students said the yoga was the most challenging part, and some said it was the best part.

“The yoga for me is an integral part of teaching anyone free diving,” she said. “Even though we are a breathing species and reflexive breathers, we are not very good at breathing. We don’t oxygenate properly. Once you get people connected with their breathing, the thought process starts slowing down, their metabolism slows down, their heart rate slows down.

“When you put someone to work in the water it is much easier to work with them. It is a body awareness thing. This morning they were in a yoga position and as soon as it got hard they would fall out of it. I said: I know you guys can do it, it’s just that it is tough. What kind of life are you going to be living if you run away from everything that is a challenge? Allow yourself to be challenged. Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it is bad. I think yoga is an amazing way to learn that lesson.”

Some of the tricks Ms Prinsloo taught the young people in Kids on the Reef were actually pretty simple, such as how to equalise the pressure in their ears when underwater. This involves holding your nose and blowing until your ears pop.

Kids on the Reef team ready to jump into the water. (Photo by Peter Marshall)

After training some were brave enough to swim
under the boat. (Photo by Peter Marshall)

“A lot of the children were so happy to be able to go down because their ears weren’t hurting anymore,” said Ms Prinsloo. “Some of them were going down to 30ft after I showed them how to equalise. If you are not equalising you can’t get below eight feet.”

One staff member with Kids on the Reef was thrilled to spot one of the children using their new snorkelling gear and skills at the beach over the weekend. It was an indication that the programme was having an impact on at least one young person.

“We had phone calls from the children last week wanting to do it again this week,” said Ms Prinsloo. “They were asking to stay in contact, and how they could keep doing the programme.”

Ms Prinsloo said she had a great time in Bermuda and will most likely be back, although there will be a postmortem to look at ways to improve or grow the programme.

Ironically, she grew up on a farm in South Africa far from the ocean. As children, she and her sister would spend hours diving into a nearby dam.

“We didn’t know it was free diving, we thought we were playing mermaids,” said Ms Prinsloo. “We even had a mermaid language we spoke underwater. I was a competitive swimmer at school. I studied in Sweden. At 19, in Sweden I encountered properly what I now know as free diving. So my earliest free diving and records I broke were in the Swedish fjords. With that kind of background and living in Cape Town, Bermuda is a dream come true with its warm and welcoming water.

“I have broken 11 national records,” she said. “But I have always found myself in the top five women in the world when I have been competing. But I have never been one to put that amount of time and money into actually going for world records. I am too passionate about the other works I do, my coaching and diving with big marine animals. I dive with whales, sharks and rays and write articles. I think my ocean storytelling and coaching is more important than breaking records.”

She has coached a wide range of adults from people with extreme fears of the ocean to people with physical disabilities to spear fishermen who want to dive deeper. She has also worked with elite athletes from different fields who want to increase their mental strength and their breathing capacity through free diving training.