Amazon River swimmer Martin Strel. Photo courtesy of amazonswim.com.
Explorers have been making their way down the world’s mightiest river for hundreds of years. Untold numbers of people have not completed the journey, drowning in its murky waters, being eaten by animals, losing their way, succumbing to tropical disease, being killed by pirates or hostile local populations. But today a trip down the Amazon is less special—it has even been rafted and kayaked by a few intrepid souls. Traversing the majority of the Amazon can be done easily by commercial boat, provided you have the time and a lot of patience.
But then in 2007 a Slovenian did something amazing: he swam the entire length of the river.
The adventure took 66 days and exacted a heavy physical and mental toll, but Martin Strel survived and in so doing conveyed a simple, but powerful message to the world: we are part of the our environment.
Strel is the subject of a new documentary—Big River Man—which won a Best Cinematography prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The film documents his 5,268-kilometer (3,273-mile) swim down the Amazon.
In a December 2010 interview with mongabay.com, Strel discussed his Amazon swim including his training regime, his message, his motivation, and the challenges of fatigue, illness and physical threats from caiman, piranha, floating logs, and fierce currents.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN STREL, MARATHON SWIMMER
mongabay.com: What inspired you to start swimming the world’s greatest rivers?
Martin Strel. Photo courtesy of amazonswim.com.
Martin Strel: I’ve always loved being in the water from a very young age—I could say water is my second home. Undoubtedly my love of this wonderful element WATER is the biggest reason why I am doing this today. Then later during my marathon swimming career I discovered how important clean and fresh water is for our living and I decided to swim and speak about my feelings and messages about the water and surroundings. Today my swims are not just the swims, I study the water quality and do observation while achieving my challenges.
mongabay.com: Were you ever afraid while swimming the Amazon? There are lots of creatures—big and small—that could inflict some pretty serious damage. What precautions did you and your team take? Did you have any close calls?
Martin Strel: You are right, the Amazon River is not the environment for a human to swim. It is full of a wonderful biodiversity—we have to protect such precious parts of the world. My team and I had studied the river and surrounding area for several years prior the swim. I traveled there three times myself since I had to know all the details from what is in the water, what is around the water and what is in the sky above the water—so many things to know apart from swimming. I was lucky to have met such great people who helped me accomplish this achievement. Thanks again to the team who worked so hard and believed in my story.
Protection against Amazon river pirates. Photo courtesy of amazonswim.com.
I had a few close calls including a few piranha bites on my back, a very close meeting with a deadly snake called bushmaster, and a few alligators and jaguars, which were not interested in me. Pink dolphins were the one who saved my life and let me finish my journey I believe. They were following me all the way, swimming very close to me every single day and I believe 100 percent they were there to protect me. I was hearing their communication under and above the water—very very impressive.
But let’s go back to the danger part and what I was afraid of the most. I was not afraid of most of the animals and living creatures, I somehow believed I am going to become part of their environment and I did. Mostly I was afraid of drowning in one of the strong whirlpools, getting injured somehow or getting sick from bacteria or parasitic disease.
Also to help myself and avoid being scared of all the dangers around, I invented a technique to forget where I was. This gave me an ability to continue swimming in the murky water seeing nothing and hearing all the strange sounds in the jungle around me.
mongabay.com: What about physical challenges like rapids in the upper stretches of the Amazon and floating logs?
Martin Strel: Yes rapids are there and mostly dangerous are under water currents when two rivers join together and create vortexes. This is such a frightening moment to be there as you are so weak, water takes you under and you can just say goodbye to the air. Also logs are in the water and even whole islands, pieces of ground and trees floating downriver as sometimes the rainfall is so intense. The water is so powerful it takes the ground away when it changes course.
mongabay.com: Were any parts of the river less pleasant than others? Did you have issues with pollution near cities? What about the river delta with the massive tidal swings?
Martin Strel: Hmm, there were parts that I was afraid as hell going through. At the beginning there was a spot were 170 people died few years ago when the whole boat was sucked under the water. And we were going through this part passing the confluence of the Ucayali and Pachitea Rivers. Amazon river has several different names and one of them is Ucayali in upper part. Then there were parts in the lower part (after Santarém) where we knew that pirates are around and likely following us being a good prey to try to attack.
Tidal bores in the enormous delta are normal and I did expect them, so we were prepared. I did swim few times at night to be able to continue with the progress as the tides were so strong during certain hours.
No problem with city pollution, I only smelt water differently but no major pollution problems. The water is dark and murky and you cannot see anything but I believe it is not chemically polluted yet.
mongabay.com: Overall, what were the biggest challenges for you on the Amazon swim?
Martin Strel. Photo courtesy of amazonswim.com.
Martin Strel: First to complete the journey from start to finish, second to raise awareness about importance of rainforests and clean waters, thirdly to spread my story via all possible channels like books, films, Internet, etc. I feel the story is being very successful and the goal has been accomplished. It is my biggest achievement to date and I hope people get inspired after seeing my story.
mongabay.com: When you concluded your swim you were in very bad shape. What were your biggest health problems and how long did it take you to recover?
Martin Strel: Yes, I was very down last few days. Besides being exhausted after swimming two months, I also got parasitic disease called bilharzia or Schistosomiasis and had sunburn all over my face. Also my mind was very weak at the end and I was basically dragging myself the last few days. It’s taken me a long, long time to recover. Physically I was OK after few months but mentally, I still sometimes wake up during the nights and cannot sleep because of such dark memories and traumas. But the happy end makes me keep going and looking forward to new challenges.
mongabay.com: What was the response to the Amazon swim? Did people pick up on your message?
Martin Strel: The response was great and still is. It will probably last for a while as not many people do what I do. I think people picked the message. Hopefully I’ve inspired several people to take on their own challenges and think about the green environment.
mongabay.com: You’ve swam the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and now the Amazon. The Congo seems like it would be too dangerous, so what’s next for you or now that you’ve swam the mightiest river? Or are you going to take a break for a while?
Martin Strel: Please see the article which describes my next challenge, Colorado river in USA:
Marathon swimmer Martin Strel to take on the Grand Canyon
mongabay.com: What sort of prep do you do prior to embarking on an adventure swim? Beyond training, how do you raise money for these endeavors?
Martin Strel: I train many hours a day, a mixture of swimming in the mornings and doing other outdoor activities later in the afternoon. From cross country skiing, hiking, gymnastic exercises to self-meditation. I know that without extreme physical and mental preparation there would be no success. Ultimately, it became clear that mental preparation and my long experiences in mental training were more important than the physical strength. In addition to that, I have to fatten up like a bear before I start. I began swimming in Atalaya (Peru) at 114 kgs and finished at 97 kgs. Slapping Amazon muddy water ten hours a day for sixty-six days with all the dangers around is something you cannot completely prepare for in advance. I mostly did it with mental control and putting myself into a meditative mode. That’s probably why today people call me Fish Man or Human Fish. My extremities and all the equipment were only the tools to keep me going on.
mongabay.com: Do you have a message you’d like to convey to mongabay.com readers?
Martin Strel: Find the right motivation, a challenge you want to pursue, and then keep on going and follow your dreams! My dreams became reality, I believe yours can too.