Bay area college student survives 16 hours at sea after being swept off coast of Honduras

BRADENTON, Fla. - "The two islands were smaller than my thumbs."

Heather Barnes, an upcoming marine biology junior at New College of Florida in Sarasota, was drifting away with the current in the early morning darkness of July 19 that enveloped a small bay near Turtle Bay Eco Resort on the edge of the Honduran island of Cayos Cochinos.

She had been lying in a hammock – restless – as she thought of the impending end of an amazing trip and the return to south Florida: her job, her studies, her normal life.

After telling her roommate she was heading out to finish collecting coral samples before dawn, she slipped into the night and the water around 4 a.m. Friday.

She would be alone for the next 16 hours.

She was there on a research trip. New College Prof. Sandra Gilchrist, a marine biologist, had been going to Honduras and bringing students along to conduct coral reef research for years, according to the school's website.

Barnes had spent the trip familiarizing herself with the above and belows of most the bay, but hadn't spent time investigating the far right side.

And so there she went, looking for new samples, an aspiring marine biologist on the hunt for her subject of choice. She had followed the buddy system the rest of the trip, but she felt comfortable with only a day left to explore the water on her own.

"I was collecting my samples on the right side of the bay, when I started feeling cramping," she remembered.

Her attention switched from the water and the coral to her pain. She began drifting in the water and she tried to work the cramp away.

"I was trying to find out what's wrong with my leg."

She looked up. The sun was beginning to line over the mountains of the islands.

"When I saw the stars and a panoramic view, I didn't think it was a big deal."

But the current quickened as she neared the edge of the protective bay and it pushed her farther from the island.

"Around 6:30 a.m., I realized that I was really far. I couldn't swim back."

As she tread water, she figured everyone in her group would wake up soon, have breakfast and realize she was missing when she didn't show up for the day's activities.

"Two hours later, I saw no one."

She laughed nervously.

"I was so sure, in the movies, the search team comes and they find you right away. There was no one out there … you always expect the infrastructure to catch you no matter what -- and it wasn't there."

She didn't panic when she realized search crews likely had no idea where she was, less than a dot compared to the surrounding Caribbean Sea.

She never panicked. What would panicking help?

"If the search team isn't going to find me, what else is there to do? We're never really taught what to do when the search team doesn't find you. I realized there's no one coming."

Perhaps she would drift to the Honduran mainland. Perhaps to the island of Utila or Isla de Roatan or on to Mexico's Yucatan.

She had no idea where the sea would take her. She had no idea if anyone was coming to rescue her.

"The swells were really increasing. At that point, I was starting to get dehydrated; hallucinating."

She became convinced the swelling water was some kind of strange practical joke being played on her.

"It sounds really strange now. The swells crashing over my head … felt like a boat was picking me up to save me. I sometimes felt like the ripples were thousands of stingrays. And a bubble was like a lion fish; all these poisonous and dangers things. I put up my fists to fight them."

With the watch she was wearing, she kept time. Two hours after breakfast, she knew she had to try to swim and fight the current back to the island.

"Even treading water was pushing me back. I couldn't, with my wetsuit, swim with my arms over. It was a sad doggy paddle."

Having pulled off her diving mask and snorkel, seawater poured into her mouth as she swam.

"I inhaled a huge gulp of water and started seeing water, and I saw myself choking."

Jellyfish surfaced and stung her face and body and she swam.

"It just seemed that any time I stopped, I got pushed farther away. Anytime I tried to lie on my back, I got pushed farther away. The wind was pushing me away."

She suddenly could accept the fact that she couldn't breathe.

"I sort of accepted that I may not make it."

She snapped back in a moment of stark reality. Something in her body wasn't ready to die.

"Even when I didn't feel like I was strong enough, there was a part of me that kept going. I had to keep going."

The hallucinations continued.

She saw friends pop in and out of the water as she swam. She was mad that they kept leaving. She laughed and figured she would see them back at the island.

She imagined sea foams were boats. But she never saw any real boats or planes. She was alone.

She had been in the water since roughly 4 a.m. She had been in the darkness once that day. She had seen the sun rise. She continued to tread through the sea as the light began to fade.

"The sun was just starting to set, and one of the most glorious things that I experienced: it started raining on the island."

As she tread for her life, she stopped to enjoy it. She wasn't in her right mind, admittedly.

"This cold air came, and it was wet earth and rain and grass and greenness."

She wasn't thinking much about her family or friends as she swam. She wanted to focus on herself, so she wouldn't be worried about letting the others down -- only herself.

If she didn't survive, she thought, what did it matter what others thought?

She focused on food.

"I was so excited for food. I was so happy for food."

It was a basic need that her body want fulfilled.

She was swimming to an area of the island she thought she recognized. It was dark again and she was nearing precious land and soon perhaps, food.

Then: pain.

She was crashing into her beloved coral. But she wasn't so much concerned with her pain, as much as the damage she was inflicting on the ultrasensitive coral she had come to study.

"I felt like one of the worst marine biologists ever."

She saw something flash. "I saw an iPhone or something, flashing at me from land."

After treading water for 16 hours, she was worried the people on shore, if they were even real, would yell at her for being on their property. There was nothing else to do but ask for help.

She collapsed on the coast, somehow surviving her ordeal. She yelled out in Spanish, telling the people she had been out in the sea.

Two women grabbed her, started bathing her burned face and body, and gave her dehydrated body the potable water it needed. They put her in a kayak and paddled her toward the resort.

She called them angels as they cut through the wat. Somehow they knew where to take her.

When they reached the resort, "every single door on the island opened and people started pouring out … people started kissing me and hugging me. I was so confused."

Honduran military showed up with machine guns, as they made sure it was Heather Barnes and she was alive and safe.

As she took in the delirious scene, she realized she had not been alone.

Certainly, she went into the sea, and came back from the sea on her own, but there were hundreds on the islands and back in the United States scrambling to be with her again.

The group she was with, along with her professor, were searching for her and were in contact with authorities on the U.S. mainland to do everything possible to assemble a larger search, more qualified search.

Locals on the island had called friends and families on the other islands and had them searching. Hikers and kayakers were out assisting the search.

She later learned all those on and near the island were searching for her in the opposite direction she had gone. But they had no way of knowing.

The Honduran Navy was dispatched. The United States Coast Guard was notified.

Barnes' mother, Heather Dukelow, was contacted and she contacted the US Embassy in Honduras.

Her father reached out to a congressman in her native New Jersey, Rep. Robert Andrews.

The provost of New College, Dr. Stephan Miles, who had been alerted to the search by Barnes' professor in Honduras, was reaching out to Florida lawmakers.

Someone was able to get in touch with a staffer for US Rep. Vern Buchanan.

"He was in the process of beginning to help," Miles said by phone Sunday, "including getting in touch with Sen. Marco Rubio's office, when she was reported found."

The provost had been in contact with the professor, the manager of the resort and Heather's mother, up until the time they all knew she had been found around 8 p.m. in Honduras.

Those who loved her had been doing everything they could to find her.

Back in the resort, the group sat around her in a lounge area. A cook made her soup with vegetables. Friends were trying to get her to drink more and more liquid.

Someone asked her if she wanted to call her mother. She didn't, but not because she didn't want to let her mother know she was safe. She was hoping no one had informed her mother of her adventure.

She figured she could tell everyone back home about what happened when she got home; no need to alarm anyone now that she was safe.

Someone put a phone to her. It was her mother.

"I could tell it was that country code and assumed it was the Embassy," Dukelow said. "I dropped to my knees and I had several people from my church and around here ... had this prayer vigil going -- and I just dropped to my knees."

They Skyped for an hour the next day.

She left Honduras 36 hours later, as planned, and flew to Tampa via Miami. When she arrived back in Sarasota, she spent some time in an urgent care facility.

She was released later that night and went to get prescribed medicine, before continuing with a plan that was set before her Honduran experience.

She went to her grandmother's home in Bradenton, where she would wait to return to her home in New Jersey for a few days, before getting back to classes with the new school year soon to come.

As she sat and spoke to a photographer that night, she admitted she'll likely not go to a beach for some time, but she didn't think a fear of the water would last long.

She had wanted to be a marine biologist since kindergarten. She understood the water had no "vendetta," she said, against any person. It was just there.

She went in. She came out.

It allowed her in on her own free will. It let her out just the same.

"It almost felt like I couldn't get that serious, which sounds strange, because at some points, I didn't think I could get beyond that. To be so ready to move on to the next space is to admit that you're done with this one. I don't know. Whatever part of me that kept kicking was the part that wasn't ready to go on yet."

She watched her first on-camera interview on the evening news from her grandmother's quiet living room; her circumstances in vast juxtaposition.

A little more than 48 hours earlier and a continent away, she was resigning herself to the real possibility she may very well have been nearing her death.

She didn't know how, and she didn't know why, but somehow, she survived.

"I felt like I cheated death. I cheated the ocean out of something."


ABC Action News photographer Scott Wilson contributed to this report from Bradenton, Fla.

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