“I know in that moment when the bubbles from my fall into the ocean surround me, and I stretch out to take my first strokes, that there is a transformation in me,” said Renate Herberger.
At age 56, Herberger is swimming the length of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast – approximately 1,011 kilometers – from the Panamanian border to Nicaragua. It is a pilgrimage to transform not only herself, she hopes, but also the way others view our imperiled oceans.
This year will be the fifth time Herberger, a German who lives in Vancouver, Canada, has made the swim to raise awareness about the fragile state of marine resources around the world. Each year in Costa Rica, she said, she sees evidence of ocean life fading due to human activity.
“The loss of corals in Costa Rica is really massive,” Herberger said a few days before she started swimming on Thursday. “In areas where four years ago there were beautiful, vibrant corals in Costa Rican waters, now those corals are gone.”
She calls herself a mermaid, a term whose mystical connotations she embraces, but not without a very practical sensibility.
“To be a mermaid means to be an ambassador for the ocean and to speak on behalf of the ocean,” she said. “The mermaid’s ways are through magic, mystery and charm.”
Herberger is an educator, a dance instructor and lecturer about ocean life. The mermaid title helps her connect with particularly crucial audiences – children.
“I’m a motherly mermaid,” she said. “At 56, I’m not the ‘Little Mermaid’ at all.”
Herberger took to long-distance swimming after a knee injury in 2005 left her with a massive thrombosis that blocked an artery in her leg. Swimming alleviates the symptoms of her injury and, she found, gives her something more.
“There’s something that happens to you when you put yourself into that great oceanic migratory community that is magical,” she said.
In 2007, Herberger came to Costa Rica to participate in a seven-kilometer open-ocean swim. She stayed in the country after the race, and one day, almost on a whim, she looked across the Golfo Dulce – which is about 22 km wide – and decided that she needed to swim across it. She arranged for a boat to accompany her and got in touch with media outlets, which drew attention to her feat.
To her own surprise, she crossed the Golfo Dulce with relatively little difficulty and found herself feeling more connected to the myriad sea creatures with which she shared the water.
Her route along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, which started near Burica Island at the Panama-Costa Rica border and will end at Salinas Bay at the Nicaraguan border, traverses the same lines along which humpback and gray whales migrate to feed near the Golfo Dulce.
“I do this to feed my soul. Whales do it, literally, to feed,” she said.
Herberger doesn’t swim just the Costa Rican coastline. In 2010, she made a similar marathon swim in the Sea of Cortez, in Mexico. Most days, she travels with a boat for safety and to give her food and water at 30-minute intervals. That day, she was unable to arrange a boat, but set out to swim anyway.
“I was alone,” she said. “I was quite a long way from shore and I saw a little shark swimming around me.”
Herberger wears swim fins, a dive mask and snorkel on her pilgrimages to be more visually immersed in the ocean. When she has boat support, she breaks every 30 minutes to nibble chocolate or bananas and to drink water and yogurt. These small breaks keep her going through eight-hour swim days.
When there is no boat, she is on her own in a vast sea.
“The next thing I knew, I saw another shark about two times as large as the first one. That happened again and again,” she said, recalling her experience in Mexico.
Numerous sharks – 21 by her own count – of various species, including tiger and bull sharks, circled her for several minutes as she swam. She described it as “oceanic dance,” and she took it as a sign to continue her work to raise awareness about the ocean’s plight. On another occasion, she said, she swam for almost an hour side by side with a green sea turtle.
Along her routes, Herberger stops to talk about her experiences. She lectures at schools about sustainability and conservation. Sharing her love of the ocean with children and engendering some of that same love in them is one of her great joys. Often after a lecture, girls from the classes will linger to ask her secretly if she is truly a mermaid. She tries to answer in ways that will help the girls reflect on what it means to care for the planet’s oceans.
“Unless we collectively realize as a species that if the ocean collapses, so do we, then we will never save our oceans.”
Herberger isn’t an environmental fanatic; she simply believes that every person can do a little something every time they reuse a plastic bottle rather than throwing it away, or when they go shopping or out to eat at a restaurant.
“Ask questions about seafood,” Herberger said. “Are the fish or shrimp you’re buying harvested in a sustainable way? If I ask a restaurant about where their fish come from and they can’t answer me, I don’t order from them.”
Bycatch of turtles in commercial fishing fleets is a major threat to different species’ survival, Herberger said. Overfishing, shark finning and other unsustainable practices are decimating sharks and other fish populations across the globe, she said. Climate change, rising ocean temperatures and ocean water acidity are globally threatening coral, which provides habitat for at least a quarter of all ocean organisms at some point during their life cycles, Herberger said. About 97 percent of the world’s biosphere is located in oceans.
It isn’t just concern for the species that live in coral or are threatened by overfishing that motivates Herberger, but love for the ocean and its inhabitants, and for those that depend on the ocean but live on land.
“When a humpback whale looks you in the eye, and she is a mother who has been swimming and playing with her baby all day long, you realize we have so much to learn from the other beings on this planet,” she said.
Herberger began her swim Thursday heading north. Anyone interested in providing boat support for her or lodging along different legs of her trip, or those interested in learning more about her experiences, can reach her at [email protected] or 8554-8266.