Believing in magic with real-life mermaid and 11th Hour Racing ambassador Zandile Ndhlovu

“Breathe in, and slowly release… again, and hold it.”

In a dark auditorium in Newport, Rhode Island, a soft, calm voice fills the room where South African freediver Zandile Ndhlovu is guiding the mesmerized audience through an introductory breathing exercise. The real-life mermaid is challenging everyone to replicate the breath-hold experienced during a freedive, a sport that ignited her passion for sharing the wonders of the ocean with diverse communities around the world.

“She’s incredible,” someone whispers from the back row. Clearly, everyone else in the room didn’t quite have the stamina Zandile had and instead was sitting in awe as she gently released her breath into the microphone. But it’s not just Zandile’s freediving ability that makes her special.


Zandile is on a mission to bring diversity to the ocean and ensure that everyone can enjoy and experience its magic. © Craig Kolesky

“Diversifying the ocean space means that the people who are seen in and around the ocean are as diverse as the ocean itself” 


Growing up far from the ocean in Soweto, a township on the edge of Johannesburg, Zandile has smashed multiple barriers and stereotypes on her way to becoming South Africa’s first Black African professional freediving instructor. She’s also an inspirational speaker, explorer, filmmaker, brand ambassador, ocean influencer, founder of The Black Mermaid Foundation, and an 11th Hour Racing ambassador. Her overarching aim is to change the narrative on who belongs in the ocean and to diversify representation in ocean-facing careers, sports, and recreation.

“Diversifying the ocean space means that the people who are seen in and around the ocean are as diverse as the ocean itself,” Zandi says. “I believe, as a black woman living in the ocean space, working in conservation, and advocating for our oceans, that representation matters.

“It is this representation that expands the belief around what you think you know – particularly in black and brown communities – about who belongs in the water.” 

As an ocean conservationist and diversity and inclusion specialist, Zandile is helping Black people find comfort in the world beneath the water’s surface – to feel as at home as she did when she first experienced life underwater back in Bali in 2016, where creatures coexist without borders, race, or gender.


“Representation is everything, and we are all children of the ocean”


“We must remember that proximity doesn’t equate to access,” Zandile explains. “What does a conservationist, diver, or sailor look like to you? Who is going to be the one to stand up and challenge the beliefs we hold? Representation is everything, and we are all children of the ocean.”

Leaning into difficult conversations around important topics is an art, and it’s one Zandile has mastered. Her ability to command a room comes across in almost any situation, making her a natural candidate for public speaking or any career path she set her mind to. So, what prompted her to use her voice as a force for good in the world?


Even the most still waters come with challenges. Zandile’s resilience for a more inclusive narrative is admirable. © Craig Kolesky

The ‘eureka’ moment happened on a diving course in South Africa where the training team in charge insisted on speaking Afrikaans, a language spoken by less than 15% of the population in the country. Despite repeated attempts to ask them to communicate in English, Zandile was repeatedly missing out on important instructions through no fault of her own.

“I felt excluded,” she remembers. “At one point, after asking for the information in English, someone held their hand up to my face and abruptly said, ‘Just wait, it’ll get translated for you.’ At that moment, I knew something had to change because I felt dismissed and like a second-class citizen. It was another stark reminder of what it felt like to be an outsider in a space I loved so much.

“So I asked myself, what would it mean for me to swim against the tide, to stand up for people so no one in the future taking that course would ever have to feel the way I had just been made to feel? I knew there and then I needed to be part of the change.”


“I am here to help people see the magic,

the magic in the beauty and power of our ocean” 


Zandile’s passion for the ocean is creating moments that can only be described as “magic.” © Sacha Specker


Her passion for change inspired the emergence of the ‘Black Mermaid,’ a role born to make a positive impact on the lives of people from all different backgrounds by inspiring, motivating, and challenging them to interact with the ocean.

I’ve always had a dream of igniting swimming in communities, particularly young children,” Zandile says. “South Africa is in the dawn of the past and now is the time to embrace the potential of future generations.

“I am here to help people see the magic, the magic in the beauty and power of our ocean. As humans, our connection to the ocean cannot be defined by one particular narrative.” One of the things that makes the ocean so fascinating to Zandile is its everlasting unpredictability and tendency to throw up a surprise when you least expect it. In Sodwana Bay while attempting her then deepest dive of 20 meters (her current personal best is 35m), she experienced one of her “happiest memories” after encountering whales ‘singing’ for the first time.


“Don’t tell me ‘this is the way it’s always been’ – those words are dangerous”


“I remember how beautiful it sounded,” she remembers. “As I came out of my dive, the whales came closer and sprayed all around us, and it was magical.”

Zandile’s work with The Black Mermaid Foundation is purpose-driven and growing at a fast rate. Her reputation precedes her in this space, and when asked about the future, her vision is as beautiful as it is clear. 

“The future is colorful,” Zandile reveals. “I want the ocean’s invitation to be expanded so everyone knows the ocean is for everybody. Part of my mission is to remind people, we must always challenge how we got here, with such a lack of diversity. Don’t tell me ‘this is the way it’s always been’ – those words are dangerous.”

Addressing the systemic issues around lack of ocean access to people of color, such as historical exclusion, economic disparity, discrimination, and lack of representation, requires concerted efforts from industry stakeholders, policymakers, and communities to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in ocean-based careers. It is for this reason Zandile’s public speaking is so important and why becoming an ambassador to 11th Hour Racing has been instrumental in setting The Black Mermaid Foundation up for success. 

Like a mirror glass, there’s a thin line dividing our stories on land and our place in the ocean. © Craig Kolesky


Zandile says: “I love talking about my relationship with 11th Hour Racing. Taking part in Shaped by Water was the beginning of my journey with them, but over time this partnership has grown into so much more. 

“Part of being an ambassador for them included receiving a grant that allowed me to grow The Black Mermaid Foundation into a self-sufficient organization. This has been key to enabling me to raise global awareness for the topics that matter to our aligned values the most.”


Who said mermaids weren’t real? Zandile’s clearly proved that wrong. © Craig Kolesky


If you ever have the opportunity to see Zandile talk in person or even watch some of her videos, do it – because in a world of noise and injustices, she makes everyone around her feel seen. That is her true superpower. 

Zandile’s new children’s book Zandi’s Song, a book about a girl who’s transformed into a mermaid after being called for by the ocean, is available to order now.

Header image credit: © Craig Kolesky