Even for the most experienced swimmer, it's a nightmare scenario. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with no food and the blistering sun burning down on your face. Jelly fish and sting rays circling beneath your feet. That’s what Heather Barnes had to deal with on Friday…for 16 hours.
The 20-year-old Deptford, N.J. native was visiting the islands of Cayos Cochinos on the northern shores of Honduras with other students from the New College of Florida. Barnes, an aspiring marine biologist, had been there for three weeks, snorkeling and studying. Friday marked her last day on the island.
"I couldn't sleep," she wrote on her Facebook page. "So I went to collect coral samples."
Barnes went out into the ocean around 4 a.m. That's when her trouble began.
"I started to cramp up," she said. "I didn't really think it was a big deal at that point. I flipped over and tried to stretch out my leg."
The tide then began to pull her farther and farther away from land. It wasn’t long until Barnes realized the perilous situation she was in.
"About ten minutes later I realized how much farther I had been pulled out," she said. "There was no way I could swim against it at that point."
She was lost in the middle of the ocean. Things only got worse as the sun came out and burned her exposed face. While she had on swim fins and a wetsuit, that didn’t prevent her from feeling the painful stings of jelly fish.
“I tried to stay in the same spot, thinking people would search for me soon,” she 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.”
Exhausted, sunburned and suffering from dehydration and jellyfish stings, Barnes began the agonizing journey back to land.
"There were several times when I thought I wasn't going to make it," she said. "But even when you mentally decide that, your legs are still treading water and you realize you're still keeping yourself above water even when you thought you had given up. So you might as well tread in one direction. You might as well keep going. Even when I thought I had given up, my body hadn't."
Meanwhile trip organizers and college officials were quickly realizing that she was nowhere to be found. Barnes’ mother, Jennifer Dukelow, remembers the phone call she received eight hours after her daughter went missing.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around it,” she said. “All I could think of was what we had to do.”
Dukelow quickly notified her friends from work as well as her church. The community sprang into action, doing all they could to help save her daughter.
“We had so many people saying, ‘I know this person, I know that person,” Jennifer said. “We got a hold of Congressman Andrews who contacted the embassy. 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 where Barnes was staying sent out fishermen, kayaks and hikers to help find her. Dukelow says her daughter not only received physical help, but spiritual aid as well.
“We had prayer chains going out from all the bodies of the church,” she said.
While friends and family turned to prayer, Barnes says there was one thing that helped keep her motivated as she swam back: food.
"I didn't think about really serious stuff along the way," Barnes said. "I didn't think about my family that much because it seemed like so much responsibility to not only swim for myself but also swim for other people. So I thought about food a lot. I thought about all the food that I hadn't been able to eat on the island in three weeks."
Finally, after 16 hours in the ocean, Barnes saw land.
"When I first got on land I landed on Lion's Point, which was not part of the island I had come from," she said. "I saw a light flashing on me and two locals came out. They thought I was a shark."
Barnes says the locals bathed her and gave her water. They then kayaked her back to the island where she was staying. Once she returned, she says she was immediately surrounded by a large group of people, overjoyed that she was still alive.
"People were pouring out, carrying me, kissing me and holding me," Heather said. "It was crazy."
Dukelow says she was overwhelmed with emotion when she found out her daughter was safe.
“I heard a beautiful voice at 10 o’clock that night,” Dukelow said. “I was screaming. I dropped to my knees. I just said, ‘thank you God, thank you God!’ She was like, ‘Mom, I’m okay, I’m alive. I kept swimming!’”
Barnes is back in the U.S. and being evaluated by doctors. Dukelow says her daughter suffered bad sunburn but otherwise is doing okay.
“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.”
Barnes will be back in New Jersey on Friday to see her family.
“I’m safe and well loved,” Barnes said. “I’m ready to take a break from the beach for awhile.”