The Ecologist

Lewis Pugh swimming 500m in water with a temperature of 0°C off the coast of Peter I Island in the Bellinghausen Sea - one of 13 seas which surround Antarctica. Photo:
Lewis Pugh swimming 500m in water with a temperature of 0°C off the coast of Peter I Island in the Bellinghausen Sea - one of 13 seas which surround Antarctica. Photo:
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  • Lewis Pugh recovering on his support boat after swimming 500m in water with a temperature of 0°C off the coast of Peter I Island in the Bellinghausen Sea - one of 13 seas which surround Antarctica. Photo:
    Lewis Pugh recovering on his support boat after swimming 500m in water with a temperature of 0°C off the coast of Peter I Island in the Bellinghausen Sea - one of 13 seas which surround Antarctica. Photo:

Man on an Antarctic mission - taking a plunge for the Ross Sea

Yannic Rack

1st April 2015

How to campaign for the world's biggest marine protected area in Antarctica's freezing seas? If you're Lewis Pugh, the answer's a simple one: swim there! And before your hands have even recovered from the frostbite, fly off to Moscow to persuade the Kremlin to back the idea. Yannic Rack met the intrepid swimmer in a cosy London pub ...

Each generation is going to be faced with its issues. For my father, it was Nazism. For Tutu and Mandela, it was a vicious, racist, violent regime of apartheid. For our generation? It's the environment.

How does it feel to dive off an ice shelf into -1.7C cold water? Lewis Pugh is one of the few people on earth who can answer that question.

"I have never ever experienced anything so terrifying," he says, sitting in a cozy pub in Marylebone a few days after his return from a 31-day voyage to Antarctica. "The word cold just has no meaning. No meaning."

Dressed in nothing but a Speedo, Pugh has just completed a series of one-kilometre swims in some of the coldest waters on earth, breaking his own world records in the process - all in the name of the environment.

In particular, he's on a mission to protect the Ross Sea, a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, over 2,000 miles below the heel of New Zealand, that is threatened by overfishing and climate change.

Can Lewis's diplomacy overcome Russia's veto?

By drawing attention to the area with his daring expedition, Pugh hopes to get 517,000 square miles of the sea - bigger than the UK, Germany and France combined - designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), restricting human activity for the benefit of conservation.

Over the last four years, the Ross Sea MPA has been in discussion by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the organisation responsible for protecting marine life in the area since 1982.

The Commission, which consists of 24 countries and the EU, has so far failed to gain unanimous support for the proposal because Russia, who currently serves as chair, has vetoed it the last four times.

"I think we've shifted the dial, but it's a process," says Pugh, freshly returned from Moscow where he spent four days appealing to the Kremlin.

"Remember that Russia traditionally looks north. They're an Arctic nation. And I was appealing to them; I said you know, it was actually the Russians who discovered Antarctica, 28th of January 1820, Admiral Bellingshausen discovered Antarctica, something which they're very proud of. They got nine scientific stations down there, more than any other nation. Of the 13 seas around Antarctica, five are named after Russian explorers."

Nothing can quite prepare you for subzero water

Pugh speaks with an accent acquired in Cape Town, yet he considers himself British - "with an African experience", he adds with a smile.

Born in Plymouth, he moved to South Africa when he was 10. His father was a Surgeon Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and Pugh would later join the military too, for a stint with the British SAS. That might explain the discipline required for the months of training and preparation he undergoes before one of his swims - one of the particular challenges he mentions is that it's impossible to train in sub-zero temperatures.

Not even putting on 30 pounds in muscle and fat, for strength and insulation, really prepares him for the plunge. "It's still a shock," he says. "And it doesn't become easier."

As an endurance swimmer and ocean advocate, Pugh has come a long way to his most recent challenge. Now 45, he has thus far crossed the English Channel, swum the entire length of the Thames in 21 days (running the first 26 miles because of drought) and climbed Mount Everest to take a dip in a glacial lake that is too harsh even for fish to live in.

Last year, he became the first man to swim all the ancient Seven Seas, from the Mediterranean to the Arabian, to highlight the importance of MPAs.

The only person to have completed a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, he has been called the Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming, a human polar bear and Patron of the Oceans. The last one is actually a title, given to him by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2013 for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the world's endangered ecosystems.

But despite this dedication to save the environment, swimming came first. His first long-distance swim, at the age of 17, was the roughly 4.5 miles from Cape Town to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was famously imprisoned.

A slow awakening

Coming of age in South Africa at the turn of apartheid obviously had a big effect on Pugh, who read politics and law at the University of Cape Town and says it was impossible not to be inspired by the fight for justice and equality.

"My law lecturers were people who wrote the new constitution," he remembers. "That was fundamental in my understanding of life, because they were always saying, what are the rights that you value so much? What type of world, or what type of South Africa, do you want in the future?"

Another influence was his father, who co-wrote history books with his wife. Pugh says he grew up "on a diet of stories of the great explorers" - Hillary, Amundsen, Scott. The elder Pugh, who was present at the first British atomic bomb test in 1952, also taught his son a love of nature.

"South Africa has some of the best national parks in the world and, as a young boy, to drive into these national parks and see elephants and rhinoceros and impala and birds - I just loved it," Pugh says. "I couldn't get enough of it. And then I lived in Cape Town, where you see whales on the beaches. It's wonderful."

After a move back to Britain and another degree from Cambridge, Pugh settled as a maritime lawyer in London, where he worked until 2003.

"But even then, I didn't realise yet that it was about the environment," he says. "There was a slow awakening." It started with the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to visit the Arctic and see it firsthand, fuelled by the stories from his childhood.

Shock therapy

He often describes one pivotal moment, swimming off Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago in 2005 (this one, again, in the Antarctic). Now a tourist destination and scientific outpost, the island once held a whaling station.

"I swam across an area where there had been a decimation of whales and there were whalebones everywhere underneath me," Pugh recalls. "Just hundreds and hundreds of whalebones.

"Each generation is going to be faced with its issues. For my father, it was Nazism. As soon as he finished his medical degree, he went off to join the Royal Navy and to fight in the Second World War. For Tutu and Mandela, it was a vicious, racist, violent regime of apartheid. For our generation? It's the environment."

His latest adopted cause once again sees him measure up against world powers, but in the moments before diving into the very ocean he wants to protect, Pugh has more imminent worries.

On the first of his five recent swims in the Antarctic, Pugh almost fell prey to one of the large leopard seals that, along with killer whales, patrol the sea for penguins.

After 600 feet, a sea lion suddenly came up underneath him. The driver of the Zodiac, a small inflatable boat that accompanies Pugh on his swims, immediately yanked him into the boat by the safety line attached to his back.

"I was lucky to get away from that," Pugh says.

He actually had to abort another swim on the expedition, this time because of 90-knot winds that threatened to blow the boat out of the water.

'Fear is healthy - it keeps you alert!'

Before jumping in, he gets in the mood by listening to music, whether it's P. Diddy or a Verdi opera.

"You're pumped up, definitely. Frightened. Certainly on the edge of panic and fear. That's a dangerous position to be in. Fear is kind of healthy, it keeps you sharp, it keeps you alert.

"But panic is deadly in the water, so you gotta control it. Especially when you dive in, because you'll be gasping for air. You just can't control your breathing. You have to get into a rhythm, which is fast and aggressive."

Pugh says that, when he is in the water, he is completely switched on: watching a board displaying his distance and time and calculating his speed. "You switch off, you're gonna be heading down to the bottom of the sea."

And he's known for a special bodily trait that he says allows him to swim where other people would simply cramp up and drown. According to Timothy Noakes, a South African sports scientist who has recorded the phenomenon, Pugh is able to raise his core body temperature by almost 2C before dipping into freezing water.

He coined the phrase 'anticipatory thermo-genesis' for the feat, which Pugh believes to be a Pavlovian Response to years of swimming in cold water.

"It all happens subconsciously," he says. "But I notice it happening, I notice myself getting a bit aggressive, very focused. Everything slows down, you get tunnel vision; people are talking to me, I can barely hear them. I'm just focused entirely on the thing. And I get very, very thirsty and very hot, as all the blood goes to the core to defend the vital organs."

Seemingly super-human capabilities aside, the cold water still takes its toll. After a week back on solid ground, Pugh says his hands are still sore from the burst cells - freezing water expands and it doesn't make an exception for the human body.

He forces a smile and says he doesn't give much thought to the damage. "You can't think about these things too much. There's a fine line between foolhardiness and bravery, a line that shouldn't be crossed. But then there comes a time where you've just got to dive in and go for it. If you'd start to think about your fingers and your toes and everything that could go wrong, you would never ever get in there."

The greatest challenge lies ahead

Back on dry land, Pugh is now focused on getting all involved countries behind the Ross Sea MPA. He doesn't have any swims planned, "certainly until October", and instead will spend the next months travelling, talking, trying to convince. And Russia isn't the only obstacle - China also vetoed the latest proposal.

"There are 24 countries, plus the EU - any one of them can dip out now. Norway could dip out, so it's hard to tell. Imagine a situation where I get Russia across the line, or I get China across the line, and then Ukraine says no," he says.

Although unclear on why exactly Russia is hesitant, he thinks it's about more than the environment. "My understanding is there is a legacy of mistrust. What is happening in Ukraine is having an enormous impact.

"And this is what I said to policymakers when I was there: we cannot wait for world peace before we solve the biggest issue facing mankind, which is a healthy planet. We cannot wait for world peace. You ask am I hopeful? I'm an idealist, but I'm not naïve. This is a process. Compromises have to happen, from all parties."

He mentions the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, which established the CCAMLR in the first place and was signed at the height of the Cold War under arguably more hostile relations than nowadays. "It set aside Antarctica as a place for peace and science. So we know it can be done. And imagine if the dialogue which happens down there can ripple back north."

Pitcairn Island shows what can be done - but that was easy!

A week before we meet, the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific were set aside as a marine reserve in Chancellor Osborne's pre-election budget. "That took a long time of negotiation. Something which I would have thought would be a no-brainer," Pugh says.

The reserve, which will cover an area of 322,000 square miles, is expected to include satellite monitoring to enforce a ban on commercial fishing. But it was relatively easy to achieve: only one single government, that of the UK, needed to be convinced. For the Ross Sea, it's 24, plus the EU.

What a similar zone in the Ross Sea would look like still depends on which country's proposal is eventually agreed on, if any at all. The area that Pugh campaigns for is almost twice as large as the marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands and would constitute the biggest protected area in the world, on land or at sea.

To solve the overfishing in Antarctic waters, he says, "I would like to see a no-take zone in the Ross Sea." But in addition to overfishing, the Antarctic is also affected by man-made climate change, which threatens to melt away ice shelves that serve as unique records of life on the planet.

"This is a unique ecosystem, I describe it as a polar Garden of Eden. It's a biodiversity hotspot. Scientists will tell you it is the most pristine ecosystem left on this planet. They're ripping out all these Antarctic toothfish out of there, you know - you take out a top predator, it affects every single species."

And for Pugh, the fight doesn't stop here. "It's not just the Ross Sea, I dream of seeing a series of MPAs around the whole of Antarctica. Our oceans are under threat like never before: 100 million sharks are fished out of the oceans every single year. That's a quarter of a million every day.

"Just to explain how quickly this stuff happens: between 1923 and 1930, every single blue whale was slaughtered in the Ross Sea. They're now locally extinct there. The speed at which you can change an ecosystem is like that!" And he snaps his fingers, still sore from the ice-cold waters half a world away.



Yannic Rack is the editor of a hyperlocal news website and a journalism student at City University London who has written for local newspapers in the UK and the US.

More about Lewis Pugh on his website:

Also on The Ecologist: 'We must protest our seas!' by Lewis Pugh.


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