HAPpy People - Robin Donovan

May 31, 2021

By Christina Malango  
HAP Reporter, Part-Time Mermaid 


Meet Robin Donovan, free diver, spearfisher, and Puget Sound gunkholer.  Yes gunkholder.

When did you discover the River Huggers and how?
River Huggers was one of the first things I did with people after I moved to Portland nearly six years ago now. I was trying really hard to meet people, and my strategy was to just keep showing up to things I enjoyed, over and over, and trying to say hello to people whose names I could remember. River Huggers was great, and epitomized everything I had dreamed Portland would be.

Have you always been a swimmer?
Ha, no. I grew up around water, and took swim and lifeguarding courses, but my first swim race was part of a triathlon in 2015. I didn't do my first 100% swim race until two summers ago. I would say, up until very recently, I never considered myself a swimmer at all, but I always loved water and wanted to get in it and be around it as much as possible.

What do you think about when you swim?
Sorry to say I'm mostly thinking about the swimming itself. I usually have a small mental explosion for the first few hundred meters, or the first 3-5 minutes in the winter. After that, I'm settling in and thinking about my stroke, reminding myself I should get better at technique, guessing the water temperature, checking on where people around me are to make sure everyone's OK, and keeping an eye on shorelines, boats and schmutz in the water, depending on the season. 

You have a number of other water related interests—tell us about them.
Triathlon is my number one reason for not swimming more, and I'd love to do an Ironman sometime in the next couple years, and run Wildwood in a day. My partner, Lars, has gotten me into sailing and free diving, which is basically scuba without the equipment. Free diving is pure magic, and despite the high barriers to entry, it's opened up new dimensions to loving water for me. 

What’s the most exotic underwater job in the tropics you’ve had?
You ask everyone this, don't you? Lars and I spent 46 days in Ahe, French Polynesia last year on a friend’s black pearl farm. While Lars was welding boats, I was scraping and cleaning oysters, and free diving with oversized, rectangular "baskets" filled with oysters to ropes underwater. That, along with spearfishing for our dinner had me in the ocean for 3+ hours a day. It was strenuous, dirty work, but watching the sunset through my dive mask while swimming home with my pole spear was unforgettable, particularly once, when sharks followed us!

What do you do IRL?
Roundabout response, but: I care about reducing trauma in the world, because I know firsthand how damaging it can be. I do a bit of consulting, teaching workshops on how to have difficult conversations and helping businesses analyze how to work together and move forward in a way that fits with their values. I freelance as a science journalist, too; helping people understand complex information hopefully helps them have more nuanced conversations with others. 

Does real life exist?
Yes, but I miss a lot of it because of social media, email and cell phones. I think nature is pretty real.

Do you have a destination swim you’d like to do some day?
I have some ancestors from Cork, Ireland. I'd like to go there and swim someday. Maybe there's someone like me running around!

How about a trip you dream about?
Lars and I have talked a lot about an extended sailing trip, possibly back to Tahiti, or maybe just gunkholing* around the Puget Sound. I'm not sure about sailing yet, but I daydream about diving in clear waters again. Visibility in Oregon is 10 feet on a good day, but in Ahe, where I learned to dive, it was more like 100 feet. The problem with learning in those types of conditions is that you never stop wanting them back.

*Gunkholing is exploring smaller bays and along shorelines waterways that might be, well, gunky! 

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