When Bárbara Hernández enters frigid open water, she doesn’t feel fear. She feels at home. The cold, bottomless ocean calms her.
Bárbara Hernández, a Santiago native, is an extreme open water swimmer. The 37-year-old set her second Guinness World Record in February 2023. She became the first person to swim 2.5 kilometers in Antarctic waters. Chile Today sat down with Hernández to hear about her journey and her plans for the future.
“I’ve always swum because I felt that the water was my home. The water feels like my place in the world,” Hernández said. “I’ve learned to love the water not for the medals because I didn’t win any. I learned to love the water for what it stands for.”
Antarctica is the largest freshwater reservoir on the planet, and the ocean that surrounds it – the Southern Ocean – plays a vital role in water circulation to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans.
Hernández’s latest achievement, being the first person to swim 2.5 kilometers in the Southern Ocean, with just a regular swimsuit, was done to raise awareness about climate change, especially in Antarctica.
Hernández’s Antarctic swim is the longest polar ice swim in Chile Bay, Greenwich Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. In 2022, she set another Guinness World Record for the fastest mile swim across the Drake Passage at 15 minutes and 3 seconds. Drake Passage is a waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn, Chile, and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands.
Barbara Hernandez announced that she had received a Guinness World Record after swimming between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in Cabo de Hornos, in southern Chile pic.twitter.com/WREeLn6JBg
— Reuters (@Reuters) June 16, 2022
Hernández was also the first Chilean to swim the English Channel, part of the Atlantic Ocean that is located between southern England and northern France. She was also the first person to swim Chungará Lake in northern Chile at 4,560 meters above sea level. She has won multiple medals in ice swimming on the world stage.
“Everything I did in the past has prepared me for this moment,” she said. “I had this vision to hold this record since the day I came up with the proposal three years ago. Since then, I have had this vision in my head every single morning when I wake up.”
Earning her most recent record, Hernández swam 2.5 kilometers in 2-degree-Celsius water. Halfway through, her arms and legs were getting heavy and going numb. At one point, she even felt her heart was running cold (a sign of hyperthermia), but she persevered. After 45 minutes and 30 seconds, she became the Guinness World Record holder for the first person to ever do it.
“I’ve always been working, thinking, and training for this moment to come,” she said. “But what I enjoy most are the moments when I’m in the water.”
Just the thought of swimming in the waters off Antarctica fills her heart with so much emotion, she said, and that makes it all worth it. While swimming for this record, she thought of her parents, her partner of 11 years, and her late grandfather. Images flashed through her mind: the color of the water, the early morning training sessions, and the medal in her hand.
“It was like a movie where people are watching me paddling in the water, concentrated and tired,” she said.
The birth of the Ice Mermaid
It was about nine years ago during a trip to Chile’s Patagonia, when Hernández first started to swim in the glaciers of Chile that people gave her the nickname “Ice Mermaid.”
“I like it because it’s not like any other mermaid, but rather, a strong mermaid that roars,” she said.
Women are always associated with princesses, queens, or the typical feminine mermaids, she said. The ice mermaid nickname gives her a chance to challenge the gender norm, to show people that she’s a strong, disciplined woman who is committed to protect the environment, one of her biggest passions.
Another passion of hers is psychology. She has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Chile.
“It was also a dream of my life [to be a psychologist],” she said.
Hernández is an only child and comes from a hardworking family, she said. Like millions of Chileans, she’s also the first in her family to attend university. Early on she wanted a career that involved working with children and adolescents because she enjoys helping them navigate the ever-changing world and finding their passions. She does this as an independent constructivist psychologist. Constructivist psychology focuses on “how people create meaningful ways of understanding themselves and the world,” and how they use that understanding to navigate daily life.
“I’m not only a psychologist. I’m not only a swimmer. To unite these passions of mine, psychology and extreme swimming, they made me who I am, ” she said.
Hernández also knows that it’s hard to make a living as an athlete in Chile. “It’s very difficult if you’re not a male football player in Chile,” she said.
Chile President Gabriel Boric passed a law in 2022, professionalizing female football. Before this law, only about 4 percent of the country’s female football players had a legal agreement with their clubs. Now, the law obliges clubs to pay salaries to their players and recognize labor and contractual ties.
It’s not that women are not interested in sports, she said. It’s just harder for women to access resources. That’s why Hernández always tells children to have a profession in addition to being an athlete.
Hernández is still not getting the attention she deserves as a world class athlete. Chilean media are not interested in her achievements as much as international media outlets, she said. Her team had to organize raffles to finance her expeditions in the past. And raffles are the daily reality of many Chilean athletes, she said.
Hernández only had a handful of social media followers in the beginning. She is now sponsored by the Bank of Chile and The North Face and has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.
“It’s beautiful because I feel that I’m part of [my followers],” she said. “I have a close relationship with them because I manage my own social media. There’s a connection with these people as they’ve also helped with the raffles in the past.”
The last ocean
Hernández has now conquered six of the seven channels as part of the Oceans Seven marathon swimming challenge. The challenge consists of swimming in the seven open water channels around the world. In March, she completed the Cook Strait between North and South Islands of New Zealand, her sixth channel swim, to become the first South American to do it.
In April, she’ll start to plan her seventh sea channel swim, the Tsugaru Strait, between Honshu and Hokkaido, Japan. Hernández hopes her swims and achievements can bring Antarctica to the conversation table because not much attention has been placed on the ocean.
The Southern Ocean helps to regulate the Earth’s climate through absorbing heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In recent years, scientists have found microplastics in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica. A research study has also shown that an estimated 65 percent of Antarctica’s native species, Emperor Penguins being the most vulnerable, are likely to decline by the year 2100.
“This is the only planet we have,” Hernández said. “Even though we may not see Antarctica, all of our plastics, our trash and the high level of CO2 affect the continent.”
Hernández will keep fighting to raise awareness of the perilous changes happening on and around the seventh continent. She’s not stopping anytime soon. And she’ll keep doing it her way, bravely in the water.
“I can’t see myself not being in icy water or in the sea,” Hernández said. “Until the last day of my life. I hope to die in the water.”
Chongyang Zhang is pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s program in journalism, media and globalisation. His interest lies in the relations among the United States, Latin America and China. He is currently doing an exchange semester at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.