Few scenarios are more feared by swimmers than being lost in the ocean, drifting further and further from shore. That is the plight 20-year-old Heather Barnes found herself in after an inconvenient muscle cramp crippled her ability to move. The New Jersey college student was vacationing in the islands of Cayos Cochinos in Honduras with friends on a school trip.
According to NBC 10, Barnes is a capable swimmer and an aspiring marine biologist. She spent her three-week vacation in the tropics swimming and collecting coral samples. On the last day before she was scheduled to return to Florida, where she attends school, Barnes went out for one last swim early in the morning. Suffering from a bout of sleeplessness and not wanting to wake anyone else, Barnes made the decision to go out into the water alone. After a few dives she began to seize up with muscle cramps.
Panic quickly followed as she saw land fade steadily from sight.
“I tried to stay in the same spot, thinking people would search for me soon,” Barnes said. “But after two hours I still didn’t see anyone. I realized if I was going to make it, I had to swim back myself.”
It was a tough decision for her to make, and even more difficult to carry out. By this point Barnes had floated well away from the resort beaches, eventually spending a total of 16 hours in the water. Her skin had taken a battering during her voyage and prune-like fingers were the last thing on Barnes’ mind. Even though she was wearing a wetsuit, jellyfish stings covered her arms and legs. Above water, Barnes was taking on a severe sunburn.
Back at the resort, her friends and trip organizers began to realize something was wrong. Nearly eight hours after Barnes went missing her mother received the call that her daughter could very well be lost at sea.
“We got a hold of Congressman Andrews who contacted the embassy,” explained Jennifer Dukelow, Barnes’ mother. “The College of Florida head reached out to Senator Rubio and Congressman Buchanan, keeping the pressure on the embassy to keep pressure on the Honduran government to do everything they could.”
The resort spared little effort in the search, recruiting fisherman, kayakers, and hikers to patrol along the island’s shores. Despite this, Barnes was able to reach shore on her own and landed not far from the resort on the western side of Cayos Cochinos.
“I made it to Lion’s Head on our island and collapsed on the shore,” Barnes said. “Two locals carried me and gave me water. They kayaked me back to the resort where people poured from every building and hugged and kissed me.”
Since then Barnes has been transported back to the United States and is now being treated for her injuries. Reportedly the worst she suffered was a bad sunburn.
“The only explanation I have is that God was with her,” Dukelow said. “You don’t hear stories of people swimming for 16 hours very often with happy endings. We’re just very thankful.”