Even tsunami warnings won’t faze open water swimmer Renate Herberger, who earlier this year made Playa Potrero one of her stopovers, as she swam the entire Pacific coast of Costa Rica to draw attention to the plight of the oceans. The Hotel Sugar Beach was proud to be a sponsor of her epic journey.
The German-born woman took to the water the minute Costa Rica called off a tsunami warning, generated by the devastating Japanese earthquake in March. She battled churning currents and rapidly fluctuating tides to complete the last leg of her 1000-kilometre northward passage along the coast. And it’s Renate’s tenacity that makes her story so thrilling.
After suffering a massive thrombosis in her leg that severely impaired her circulation a few years ago, the 55-year-old athlete decided to transform her disability into an opportunity for action. While life on land is painful, her buoyancy in the water makes swimming not only therapeutic, but downright necessary.
Ms Herberger has since made it her life’s calling to swim long-distances in the sea, drawing attention to the need for more marine sanctuaries and sustainable fishing practices. The water, she says, is her cure-all. Her message, a way of giving back.
“I think everybody has a mission in life, a calling. Some find it later; some find it very early in life. I swim in support of world seas, and I will do it for the rest of my life,” she said.
Ms Herberger began her mission to complete the Costa Rican Pacific coast in 2008, a Herculean task not only in the distances she travels in the water, but in the logistics of finding boats to keep pace with her, and sponsors on land for shelter.
This year marks her fourth coastal swim in Costa Rica, in addition to a similar challenge in Mexico bringing her total tally in the water to a staggering 4,000+ kilometres.
Despite the trepidation some might feel at being unprotected in open waters for such vast distances, Ms Herberger has had no unpleasant encounters with marine wildlife, and many extraordinary experiences. Sadly, she says much of her time is now spent noting the changes in familiar stretches of the coast, many of them for the worse.
“The corals are really suffering along the coast,” she maintains, and says evidence of damage from boat anchors and aggressive fishing practices can be seen in those reefs that still remain. The quantity of marine life has also declined dramatically, she notes, since her first swim three years ago.
It is this kind of deterioration that she hopes to prevent through her efforts, not only in drawing public attention to the issue, but also by engaging with young people wherever she goes to help influence the next generation of decision-makers.
Between the legs of her swim, Renate tirelessly visits local schools, drawing the children into interactive lectures about the water cycle, pollution of our oceans, and sustainable fishing practices. During her time in Potrero, she spoke to students from the non-profit Abriendo Mentes, Opening Minds Latin America, which offers free English lessons to Costa Ricans of all ages.
“It’s as if the sea is breathing and exhaling,” she said, as the children inhaled and exhaled loudly. She then walked them through the effects of tree-felling, sediment loss, landslides, and the subsequent suffocation of local coral reefs as the sediment reaches the sea. Finally, she led the group in a spiralling dance, symbolic of the interconnectedness of all those processes, of all living creatures.
Ms Herberger, since she has left Costa Rica, has also become the first person to swim around the island of Barbados.