FSF Interviews – Kimmo Ohtonen
Posted on 12th December 2012, by Mikael.

FSF Interviews – Kimmo Ohtonen


Kimmo Ohtonen is not an ordinary man. At the end of 2011 he could barely swim, weighing more than 100 kilograms. In September 2012 with water temperatures in mid-teens he swam over 130 kilometers, the length of Finland’s largest lake Saimaa, to raise funds for the endangered Saimaa ringed seals living in the same lake.

31-year old Ohtonen made a big step forward in his journalistic career when he moved to Manchester in 2003. There he worked for example for Tonight With Trevor McDonald newsshow broadcasted in ITV, which brought him to exciting chases like arresting a well-known musician in Ibiza with the special criminal investigation unit. He traveled around the world to work in places like the Bahamas and Abu Dhabi, before he wanted to return back to Finland because of an interesting job offer to work for the Finnish Broadcasting company YLE.

While in Finland he got his crazy idea. How did you even came to think of such a sporting achievement?

“As a wildlife reporter, I had been thinking what to do for the Saimaa ringed seals to raise awareness and funds.”

And as often in Finland, the idea has its roots in a sauna.

“I got the idea when I came out of my sauna to go for an evening swim. I wanted to do something for the seals, since without action they won’t be here after 15-20 years. It would also be a human journey at the same time, something I don’t know how to do and am not really good at. I was getting out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t a pragmatic idea, but an idea still”, Ohtonen laughs.

Getting in shape

Ohtonen’s starting level can be best described by the comment of his coach Krista Terämaa after seeing him swim the first time:

“When you said that you can’t swim properly, I thought that you were just a humble Finn but you really can’t swim”.

Lake Saimaa is the fourth largest freshwater lake in Europe, so we could conclude that Ohtonen learned how to swim the hard way during his 11-day journey. It included daily swims of 11-13 kilometers in a cold lake in the midst of winds blowing over 14 meters per second.

Ohtonen did his homework, and over a year he trained 10 times a week in addition to stretching half an hour daily. What was the hardest point of your journey?

“Last three days, because this year the water was exceptionally cold. A year ago the lake temperature was about 19 degrees but now it was 15 degrees. Cold was getting into me during the last days. There are a lot of open waters in Saimaa, and when you come from North to South the wind is against you. At one point I almost needed to quit because of rough waves and wind”, Ohtonen admits.

How did you take care of your nutrition during the swim?

“My coach made sure that I had enough energy gels that I took after every half an hour in water. I did two separate legs each day, and I had recovery drinks after each leg. I ate a lot of organic vegetables and fruits. I didn’t have a special diet, just healthy food.”

Raising hundreds of thousands

The sacrifice also got its award as the stunt raised over 135 000 euros for the endemic Saimaa seal population, whose numbers are around 300 at the moment. In addition to money raised during the swim project, the swim was the most successful individual fund raiser in WWF Finland history. It gathered over 500 sponsors, who each will donate at least 5 euros monthly for the next year, totaling to over 30 000 euros. Ohtonen was also invited to speak in an event for audience including the Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. The event raised 9 000 euros more for the seals.

Why protecting seals is important?

“Saimaa ringed seal is the only endemic mammal in Finland. It is descended from the ringed seals that were separated from the rest when the land rose after the last ice age. Saimaa ringed seal is one of the species that was here before us. It is one of the five freshwater seals as others are living in the sea. For instance there is a lot going on in protecting endangered species like rhinos. However, organized crime is a strong opponent and it doesn’t help that rhinoceros horns are selling more than gold per kilo. Here in Finland we can locally coordinate the actions. Man’s power on their own land.”

Ohtonen has also made other concrete actions to protect the seals. This winter he will get training to be able to count the nests on the coming spring. Annual nest count during spring time is important for the information of the exact numbers of Saimaa ringed seals, and thus one of the core functions in the protection work. Even though at the moment he is a wildlife reporter, Ohtonen doesn’t want to limit his charity efforts to animals.

“I want to raise funds for children’s hospitals and other charities as well. Even many distinguished animals are in danger, it is important to help other people too.”

Thumbs up for charity

Some people are skeptical about charity organizations’ effectivity like fundraiser’s target organization WWF. Kimmo used to question the effectivity as well.

“I used to be suspicious thinking that most of the money is used in administrative costs but actually WWF is really pragmatic and concrete on their spending. Also their website is realistic and gives plenty of information”, he recommends.

Usually people like Ohtonen have their next adventure already in mind. What is the crazy “seal swimmer” doing next?

“I will plan something big for 2014 but first I’ve decided to take part in Sulkava Rowing Race this summer to raise funds for the charity that I’ll confirm later. It will be 60 kilometers of rowing but I’ve already started to practice”, Ohtonen says with a twinkle in his eye.

Ohtonen has promised to answer questions both in Finnish and English on the official Facebook page of the “Seal Swim”.

Photo Credits:  Mikko Nikkinen/Storymakers.fi 

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