Christi Bettinsoli, owner of Lola’s Restaurant in Avellanas, handed me a mask, snorkel and fins, while Blue Dolphin Sailing’s Jeff Herman told me to meet him at the rubber dingy that would take me out 300 yards to meet Renate Herberger.
That day, the 52-year-old German from the Canadian city of Victoria, British Columbia, planned to take a short, casual swim instead of the usual 20 kilometers she has been doing in segments up the Pacific coast for more than two months.
By the time she reached Avellanas, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Herberger had swum 700 kilometers.
Bettinsoli read about Herberger’s goal to swim the Costa Rican Pacific coast to promote marine sanctuaries and raise awareness of threatened marine life in The Tico Times (TT, Jan. 25) and offered to sponsor the Guanacaste leg of her swim.
She said, laughing, that the only way to get the story of this extraordinary woman who has been swimming eight hours a day since entering the water Feb. 1 near the southern border with Panama is to get in the ocean and paddle alongside her.
And so it was last Saturday, four days before the anticipated completion of Herberger’s journey in Playas del Coco, farther north.
Though she had yet to find a boat to accompany her in Coco, the upbeat athlete didn’t seem too bothered, focusing instead on the day’s event: two exhibition swims, a talk about her experience so far, and a storytelling session for children. All proceeds from Lola’s Restaurant, which came to about $1,000,went to Herberger for her journey and her cause.
Herberger took to swimming in the ocean for therapy two years ago, after suffering a massive thrombosis while waiting for surgery for a torn ligament in her knee. Swimming in the ocean helped alleviate her pain.
The idea of combining a coastal Costa Rican swim and raising ocean awareness was natural, Herberger explained, saying, “I was always an activist, and to be in the ocean is my calling in life.”
Since she began her journey, a typical swim day has found the athlete rising between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to head to the boat to the swim entry point. The accompanying boat might be a fishing boat, a simple panga or a fabulous yacht, depending on who volunteers to help. Between 5:30 and 7 a.m. she is in the water and swimming, fully clothed because of the jellyfish. Her uniform includes multiple turtleneck sweaters and dancing tights, snorkeling gear and, depending on knee pain, fins.
Every half-hour, she replenishes with water and drinking yogurt. At noon, she breaks in the boat for lunch, usually a sandwich, before heading immediately back into the water for more swimming, until she completes her daily eight hours in the water.
While swimming,Herberger often collects trash and debris that cross her path, depositing them into the attendant boat.As Herman said in Avellanas, “This takes beach cleanup to a new level.”
Not every day has been a water day. Herberger has spent many days administrating since her original sponsor and organizer, Dominical Social Programs Association, backed out March 9 because of economic factors, she said.
“There were days I was chewing my fingernails off metaphorically, wondering where I was going to stay next,” she said. “And then it would just happen.”
Like in Dominicalito, on the southern coast, where Herberger chatted with a woman on the bus and ended up with the woman’s nephew, David Allen Montoya, as her boat driver for five days.
Though she brought camping gear, Herberger said she used it only one night. The rest of the time she “had the phenomenal good fortune to stay in private homes and hotels through sponsors’ accommodations that came about 70% from those reading the Tico Times article.”
Life in the Pacific has been great, Herberger said.
“In Punto Banco (near Pavones on the southern coast) a pilot whale came right under me. It was an absolutely stunning creature.
It felt like a great blessing,” she said.“And quite often I hear the humpback whales, and they sing for around hours and hours.”
As to her worst experiences in the water: “I have had a lot of hot kisses on the lips,” she lamented, referring to the jellyfish stings that managed to find the only unprotected area on her body besides her hands. Two times she had to get into her chaperone boat and move to a position farther offshore, because “there were just millions, a broth or thick stew of jellyfish. It was pretty terrifying. They are the only things in the ocean that scare me. I had a bad reaction to a man o’ war sting once, and I won’t ever forget that.”
On the whole, however, the expedition up the coast has been positive. Herberger said her favorite experience was near Quepos on the central coast, between the mainland and Isla Damas.
“In between, the ocean compresses in this channel with very confused currents and huge waves of about five meters,” she explained. “I told the boat driver to stick really close to me. Then, I let myself breathe and let go of the fear, and I entered this place of absolute bliss, a sensation of free falling and flying at the same time. I felt like a child in the bosom of the big mama.”
Herberger said she feels she’s accomplished her goal of “swimming the world’s warm oceans to raise awareness for the urgent necessity to protect our seas, because we are not separate from them.”
“It’s about the journey,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
For information on Herberger and her journey, see www.costaricamermaid.net.