Hanli Prinsloo on the Zen of Freediving, The Sport That Leaves Physiologists Speechless
by Owen James Burke
“Because everyday life is hectic, and we have all these stress-induced functions in the body, this is one way to learn how to control them.” — Erika Schagatay, a physiologist at Mid Sweden University, on freediving. Photo: Jacques de Vos/Nautilus
Hanli Prinsloo is a South African marine conservationist and former competitive freediver who once held the goal in mind that she would break the women’s world record for freediving by reaching a depth of 213 feet. Today, she heads an ocean conservation trust, I Am Water, and while she continues to freedive, no longer competes after a close call off Egypt a few years back led her to reevaluate things.
Hanli Prinsloo walks an underwater tightrope. Photo: Annelie Pompe
Until 1949, it was believed that at a depth of 100 feet beneath water, a human being’s lungs would collapse without an oxygen tank. Then a brazen Italian fighter pilot and spear fisherman named Raimondo Bucher made the claim that he could dive to 100 feet on nothing but a single breath. Enrico Falco, a fellow countryman and diver, called bullshit. Surely, he was challenging Bucher, perhaps to die.
A 50,000 lira (then about $800 USD) wager was set. Falco put on his scuba gear and carried a piece of parchment paper with him to at a depth of 100 feet, where he waited on the seafloor certain he’d never see Bucher. Sure enough though, Bucher appeared, and however reluctantly, Falco turned over the paper and the wager.
Bucher entered a hypnotic state, one which he–and every one of us–first learned inherently by passing through the birth canal as children, and fine-tuned while spearfishing, no doubt. But with a little training, we all have the capacity to enter this state.
Marine mammals all have this same ability. The heart, the metabolism, and the mind all slow, requiring less oxygen, and the lungs build a wall of blood around them to keep the constriction process from collapsing them. Beyond this, physiologists are at a loss for words as to how, exactly, the human body can endure such pressures–especially today, when the freediving world record belongs to Austrian Herbert Nitsch, who in 2012 dove to over 830 feet off Santorini.