Lewis Pugh: Swimming in the Arctic Ocean

Jason Smith 19 May 2015

Speaking in front of the UN in New York would invoke levels of fear so colossal that, for most, it would put them into a frozen state of panic or at worst render them so speechless on a day their voice is most needed. Thankfully, for environmentalist and extreme swimmer Lewis Pugh  (who has experienced some of the coldest temperatures our world has to offer) this is not a problem, nor is his voice – although soft spoken if you meet him in person – it remains strong and passionate on issues facing our planet.

Along with the above description of Lewis, the following can be added: ex maritime lawyer, speaker, author, ocean advocate and the rather unique title of Patron of Oceans for the United Nations Environment Programme. It was in this latter capacity that Lewis spoke recently at the UN in New York to all the ambassadors of the nations involved in Antarctica. With the US Ambassador to the UN introducing him personally his speech focused on an ongoing initiative to classify the Antarctican Ross Sea as Marine Protected Area (MPA). MPA’s are government protected areas considered to be:

Any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, tribal, territorial, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.

However, interpretation is very often open to debate on whether that allows any human activity or not and the definition can change depending in which country is upholding it

Being a man of action, and to give further strength to that voice, he has swum in some of the most vulnerable ecosystems - he says - “to draw attention to the impact of our actions on our oceans.” In 2007 he swam 1km across an open patch of sea at the North Pole to draw attention to the melting of Arctic sea ice. It took 18 minutes 50 seconds in temperatures of minus 1.7°C (or minus 16.8 Celsius to give a more dramatic figure).

In March of this year Lewis returned to swim in similar temperatures - which most of us can only guess at. This time it was in the Ross Sea, off Antarctica, for five record breaking swims  with no insulation other than a regular pair of Speedos!

Writing for USA Today earlier this month Lewis had this to say about the area: “There is no sea as pristine and unspoiled as the Ross Sea. It's the last true wilderness left on Earth, and is crucial for science”. Lewis goes on to say however, that industrial fishing is the major concern with the Antarctic toolfish being predicted to have disappeared over the next few years which could further collapse the entire ecosystem. In the same article Lewis reports: “For the past four years, Russia has vetoed proposals to have the Ross Sea declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA). I wanted to break the deadlock and find a way to bridge the gap between Russia and the United States. Would some "Speedo diplomacy" work?"

Well he did it and is still with us to tell the tale. He did this by having a great team around him that included doctors, scientists, cameramen, boat operators and his coach. Of the swim, Lewis had this to say:

With each stroke, I watched myself freeze. After 100 meters, the first digits of my fingers were completely white. After 200, the white had spread up to the second knuckle, and at 300 I couldn't feel my hands. At 350, it was time to get out of the water. I had undertaken the most southern swim in the world. I was alive. My fingers should recover. But had I made my point?

It took a while for feeling to return to his hands and he did go to Moscow shortly after but it appears that it was not as successful as Lewis had hoped. We caught up with Lewis last week and asked for an update and he came back to us by saying that he “will be returning to Russia shortly for more negotiations on the Ross Sea. I am hoping we will make a breakthrough this time. It really is in everyone’s interest to protect this unique and incredible ecosystem”.

If the above illustrates anything, Lewis Pugh is a determined and passionate individual whose inspiration is derived from the very thing he wishes to protect. This with being able to recognise his own limitations and, by doing so, get the best people and professionals around to advise him in how to stay alive; his pioneering nature to swim where no swimmer has swum before and someone who's not afraid to stand in front of the world’s most high profile diplomats ensures the Russians – whether they know it or know – have a challenge ahead from someone who will go the absolute limits to have his message heard.

For more details of the Five Swims, The Ross Sea, its marine life and MPAs please visit Lewis Pugh's site .

Picture of Lewis Pugh exiting the Arctic waters courtesy of the man himself. Map courtesy of Wikipedia: Map of a segment of Antarctica, identifying the polar marches of Scott and Amundsen.

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