Record-breaking freediver and ocean conservationist Hanli Prinsloo picks her Top 5 destinations for the boundary-pushing sport of freediving (underwater diving without scuba gear)
Hanli Prinsloo and turtle in Mozambique (Annelie Pompe)
With more than 2500km of coastline, Mozambique has a lot to offer for any ocean lover, but for freedivers specifically it’s my favourite place right now. In the very south, around Ponta Do Ouro, you can jump on a permitted boat and freedive with playful dolphins, explore exquisite coral reefs, swim alongside dozy turtles and glimpse mysterious sharks all in one morning.
A couple hours of flying north to Tofo Beach, you have filter feeder HQ; manta rays and whale sharks are year round residents and it’s easy to find an ocean safari boat and enjoy the giants. You could maybe even use your freediving skills to help the local Marine Megafauna Foundation by snapping a photo of a manta belly for their ID projects.
At the very north of Mozambique, you have archipelagos to take the breath away, including around Qarimbas, and here you can step off your private porch into crystal warm water to explore pristine reefs and dramatic drop-offs.
(Suitable for any freediving level.)
Cape Town, South Africa
Shark in waters off Cape Town (Peter Marshall/I Am Water)
I might be slightly biased as this is my home, but Cape Town truly is an undiscovered jewel in the crown of underwater destinations.
You would need a slightly thicker wetsuit to freedive the cold Atlantic, but the saying “There is no bad weather just bad gear” applies for freediving the Cape of Storms, too. A flexible 5mm wetsuit is all you need to comfortably kick down into the fairyland of swaying kelp forests; with trunks of up to 20m long, it’s a woodland meander below the surface.
Bright pink and purple urchins lie scattered like spilled cake sprinkles along the bottom, while schools of bream and solitary red romans patrol the mid-water. The other accessible residents of the Cape Peninsula include the adorable African Penguin, Cape fur seals who snuffle around you like Labrador puppies, the languid sevengill shark and several species of small cat sharks.
Most of the dives around Cape Town are ‘shore entry’, which makes it even simpler to explore what lies below.
For more advanced freedivers, a day trip into the far south deeps, there is the chance of freediving in blue water with blue and mako sharks, tuna bigger than a person and maybe even a pilot whale or 60.
(Suitable for all levels.)
Baja Peninsula, Mexico
Hanli Prinsloo in the Sea of Cortez (Peter Marshall/I Am Water)
Jacques Cousteau famously called the Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium” on a 1940 expedition and, thanks to a dedicated group of conservationists, a small part of it still is.
Along the east cape, there are lots of blue water right hand surf point breaks, some surf camps, local fishing villages, cactuses and dusty hills, but what you can see from the surface is nothing compared to the wilderness below.
Thanks to 25 years of hard work, the Cabo Pulmo residents have managed to secure a protected marine area that serves as a fish bank to the whole region. With the right operator and permits, you can sink down into a swirling mass of silvery glinting bodies, surrounded on all sides by more fish than you thought existed. You get playful sea lions to the south, juvenile whale sharks to the north.
There are not many places left that can be described as a wild aquarium, but Baja is that place.
(Suitable for intermediate to advanced freedivers.)
Sinai Red Sea, Egypt
Colourful fish in the Red Sea, Egypt
As a competitive freediver, I spent many months swimming up and down a rope in the famous Blue Hole outside Dahab in the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. A subaquatic sinkhole that drops down to over 90m, the Blue Hole is a Mecca for freedivers.
Sitting cross-legged in a Bedouin style restaurant drinking dark pink Hibiscus tea with honey, getting mentally prepared for freediving deep on one breath, you have the stark mountains of Sinai behind you and the ridiculously blue Red Sea in front of you. It’s almost too easy to freedive here.
Walk 20 steps from your Hibiscus tea and you have steep walls of brightly coloured hard corals infested with clown fish, wrasses, parrot fish, damsel fish and all their friends.
With fun swim-throughs and tunnels, lots of different spots to explore around Dahab and the majestic Ras Muhammed Marine Reserve further south on the tip of the peninsula, this is a place for beginners to get better and advanced freedivers to combine deeper dives with fun exploration.
(Suitable for all levels.)
Baa Atoll, Maldives
Whale shark in the Maldives (Dreamstime)
A tropical nation that consists of hundreds of islands is an obvious one for underwater junkies. It seems like a tame choice for an adventurous freediver, but there are many ways to explore the Maldives that don’t involve being stuck on a white beach with a diamond on your finger.
One of my favourite trips ever was a liveaboard boat holiday in the Maldives where, over ten days, we freedived the waters around more than 15 islands. It had everything, from exploring the uncanny pillars of coral called Tilla’s, where a more experienced freediver can drop far down these walls teeming with life, to night diving with manta rays that swoop out of the darkness. We even found a juvenile whale shark feeding at the surface.
The Baa Atoll in the central western part of the string of pearls that make up the Maldives islands is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and at the right time of year, with the right currents, right winds and right permits, you could freedive with the greatest aggregation of manta rays in the world.
(Suitable for all levels.)
Hanli Prinsloo will be speaking about her freediving adventures at Steppes’ ‘Beyond’ Travel Festival at The Royal Geographical Society, which takes place on September 17 and 18, 2016. See www.steppestravel.co.uk
Main photo: Freediver Hanli Prinsloo in the Maldives (Peter Marshall/ I Am Water)