Two years ago, Lewis Pugh sat on a boat that was bobbing in the icy cold waters just off the land mass of Antarctica, looking into the inky blackness of the Ross Sea and wondering whether he was capable of swimming across it.

The enormity of the task ahead crystallised, quite literally, when a wave crashed into his boat, flew up and froze instantly in mid-air. Lewis stripped down to his Speedos, donned a cap and goggles, took a deep breath and jumped in.


Lewish Pugh in one of the rare times he’s not in the water

Lewis Pugh is the first and only United Nations Patron of the Oceans, which is the diplomatic way of saying that he’s quite the lunatic. He has swum in the North Pole, in a sea on top of Mount Everest caused by melting glaciers and at Antarctica, among other locations. Pugh does all of this to raise awareness about pressing environmental matters.

His swim at the Ross Sea garnered global attention and galvanised 24 countries and the European Union to come together and officially declare the Ross Sea a marine protected area (MPA), which means that no fishing vessels can fish in those parts for 35 years. It’s the world’s largest MPA.

Pugh isn’t stopping. His next aim: turning six more seas – Cooperation Sea, Davis Sea, Somov Sea, Bellingshausen Sea, Scotia Sea and Waddell Sea – into MPAs.

The South African was in Singapore recently for the launch of the new BMW 5 series, so we had an extensive chat with him about his environmental work and the human condition.

The world is divided between pioneers and followers. You’re either a pioneer or a follower.”
Lewis Pugh

Lewis Pugh in Singapore

What inspired you to use swimming as a tool to create awareness about the environment?
It’s just so effective. I’m in the water. I can see the changes, which are taking place year after year. It enables me to tell stories about our oceans to world leaders. And the stories are so simple that not only world leaders can understand, but young children too.

Which, in your opinion, was the hardest swim to do mentally and physically?
They’ve all been tough. It’s like asking parents to choose which child is their favourite (laughs). But I would probably say the North Pole. Back in 2007, I did the first swim across the North Pole. Physically, the water was -1.7 degrees centigrade. No human had ever swum in waters anywhere close to that temperature before.

So it becomes a real mental battle.

The world is divided between pioneers and followers. You’re either a pioneer or a follower. I didn’t know what would happen to me if I dived into that water. We did training in water, which was zero degrees, and it was very good preparation. But nothing prepares you for -1.7. That doesn’t sound like a big difference but it’s the difference between climbing a hill and climbing Mount Everest. The pain is incredible. Luckily I made the swim.

Do you remember how your body reacted after you came out of the water for that swim?
I couldn’t feel my left hand for four months.

Why the left hand though?
It’s an interesting question. I’ve asked myself that too. I’m very right handed. My right arm in terms of swimming is a lot stronger and maybe it has something to do with that but we don’t know.

Could you tell me about your time in the SAS and how it affected your life?
I spent five years in the Special Air Service (SAS) of the British Army. The thing it really taught me most was about teamwork. You’re operating in very small teams, four- to eight-man teams and in very difficult circumstances.

Some things are very difficult to teach. Teamwork is very difficult to teach. You’re either a team player or you’re not. You either think about the greater good or you’re inherently selfish. There are other things that are difficult to teach – commitment, a sense of urgency, humility. And what I learned about the SAS was that how they chose the teams to undertake the most difficult missions.

And I used the same selection criteria when I’m choosing teams to go into the Polar Regions and attempt swims that no one else has ever attempted. Yes, I’m the one that’s swimming but I’m surrounded by a team of people who help me, and they have to work as a part of a team. They have to have commitment, a sense of urgency because things can go wrong very quickly. We all need to have humility because we’re dealing with the elements.

Do you have different teams for all your swims?
It’s different people all the time and the big difference between the SAS team and mine is that the SAS doesn’t have any women in it. There are lots of women in my team – head of strategy, head of communications, head of science is a woman. That provides a different dynamic. But yes, I choose all the teams and I personally choose the people.

Lewis Pugh swimming off Antarctica

Your next aim after the Ross Sea Ice Shelf is another six protected areas of Antarctica. As a layman, could you tell me where these six areas are and why they are so important to humanity?
These areas have been chosen by scientists for being the most biodiverse and the most environmentally sensitive. They’re important for a number of different reasons but the main threat that they’re facing now is dramatic over-fishing. The big fishing fleets in the world have literally taken out all the big fish out of the oceans and now they are moving into the two oceans that haven’t been fished – the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean.

Unless these areas are protected, these incredible wilderness areas will be gone forever. And it’s happening very, very quickly. We are literally destroying Antarctica.

I want to play Devil’s advocate. Personally I find the human condition is one of perpetual crisis. Do you think we’ll be able to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat?
There are many crises that we as humans have faced and we’ve overcome them. But when it comes to the environment I think this is one which we haven’t been able to solve and one we’re losing.

When I was a young boy, I used to swim off Cape Town. Whenever I swam off Cape Town I always see African penguins. Always. There was never a swim where I didn’t see African penguins. Their numbers have plummeted. In 1900, there were 4 million. In 2000, that number had gone down to 100,000. And in the last 15 years, that number has crashed to 60,000 in 2015. It just keeps on dropping due to massive over-fishing. You take away all the fish and the penguins have got nothing to feed on.

Another thing – sharks. They are so vital to a healthy ecosystem. You take out the main predator and everything else collapses. 100 million sharks are slaughtered per annum. You work that out, that’s about 270,000 sharks per day. It’s just entirely unsustainable.

We urgently need to protect our oceans by turning them into marine protected areas and allowing them to recover. And what we know is when we do protect these oceans and we ensure that these fish are not fished, their numbers recover. So can we pull this rabbit out of the hat? Yes, but only if we set aside very large sections of the sea from rampant over-fishing and climate change.

What would you attribute our inability to handle these problems? Is it bureaucracy or terrible governance?
Yeah, that’s one aspect of it (laughs). The first is that there’s so many crises. When I was trying to get the Ross Sea protected, I had to get 24 countries in the EU to agree to it. At the same time, we had Donald Trump trying to become President, we had the war in Syria, we had the conflict in the Ukraine, Brexit, there’s a famine occurring in various parts of Africa, etc. 

These are serious things that require the attention of world leaders. Now you try and tell them that these things are important but you also have to focus on what’s happening in Antarctica because if we don’t focus on what’s happening there, this place will be destroyed in a short period of time. But Antarctica is thousands of kilometres away from Washington, from Moscow, from London, from Singapore.

The second reason is that as humans, we focus on our own human needs. For me this is a question of justice between us and the animal kingdom. There’s something very, very wrong of us destroying the worlds of the humpback whale, the emperor penguin and the albatross.

But this argument doesn’t just wash with other people. Some people believe that the only thing we should be protecting are humans, not realising that we also rely entirely on the animal kingdom for our survival and they rely on us.

And the last reason is because of science. I come from a family of scientists. The problem is that the science is lagging behind what is actually happening in the oceans. Let me give you an example. I did a swim in 2005 near the North Pole. The water was 3 degrees centigrade. 10 years later, in 2015, the water was nearly 8 degrees centigrade. This is just a 1,000 km away from the North Pole.

Is that story being told by scientists? Not at the moment because everything has to have the data. They have to have it peer reviewed. They have to have it published. And the climate is changing quicker than the science. And scientists are struggling to present the evidence to policymakers in a very simple, clear and coherent manner.

How do you think scientists can change? Should they be more sensationalist?
It’s just not in them. They are just not those type of people. They are just not data driven. I don’t know. But I think they also have to take a risk.
But they’re very risk averse as a profession.

Our generation is facing the problems. It is not just an issue for our children and grandchild but it is also an issue for us.

When you’re not swimming in cold water, what does a man like you do to relax?
(Laughs) I’ve got three dogs. I love animals and I love peaceful walks. I must confess that most of my time is spent in the oceans. It’s not only the place where I work but also the place where I relax. So I’m walking on the beach or lazing on it.

written by.

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