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Lewis Pugh: In the zone

  • Written by  Matt Maynard
  • Published in Oceans
‘I am swimming in places where you shouldn’t  be able to’ – Lewis Pugh ‘I am swimming in places where you shouldn’t be able to’ – Lewis Pugh Photo: Kelvin Trautman
01 Dec
2017
In February 2015, maritime lawyer and cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh swam in the sub-zero Antarctic waters of the Ross Sea. His subsequent meetings with top Kremlin officials helped break the ice on a 17-year-long proposal to establish a Marine Protected Area in the region. As Matt Maynard discovers, Pugh is now on a mission to establish six more before 2020

On 25 February 2015, Lewis Pugh stripped down to his trademark Speedos in a small Zodiac dingy in the Antarctic Ocean. The wind chill that day at the Ross Sea was –37°C and the salt water temperature was –1°C. Diving overboard, he began the most southerly swim ever attempted by a human being.

During the next five minutes, the cells in Pugh’s fingers began to freeze and burst, causing massive swelling. Lifting his arm out of the water was actually worse than the ‘burning agony’ experienced when they were submerged. When he was dragged onto the Zodiac half-alive, however, he knew that this time he had done enough. Ripples had been sent out across oceans. Waves would soon be arriving on foreign shores.

Fast forward two and a half years and Lewis Pugh is about to arrive at the domestic arrival gate in Santiago, Chile. The British environmentalist has been front-crawling past icebergs on his latest trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, at Half Moon Island. 48 hours ago he began the return journey on an ice-strengthened ship to the cold southern city of Punta Arenas. Today he’s just caught the four-hour flight north, landing on a stop-over in the hot South American capital. As the unmistakably tall and broad shouldered man with greying hair comes into the foyer, Rosario, an expectant local PR woman breaks forward from the crowd and greets Pugh with a typically warm Chilean embrace.

Pugh has breast-stroked in the meltwater of a Mount Everest glacier and completed the first ‘symbolic swim’ across the rapidly melting North Pole

The Latino welcome does not startle the Plymouth-born Englishman. Pugh is equally comfortable in the company of chinstrap penguins, Kremlin politicians or seated in 10 Downing Street in a swimsuit. His journey of contrasts and cultures began as a ten-year-old when his family moved to South Africa in the middle of Apartheid. He went on to study politics and law at the University of Cape Town under the tutelage of South African judges and civil rights heroes Albie Sachs, Kate O’Regan and Noble Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.

For the last 14 years he has combined skills gained as a teenage rescue swimmer at South Africa’s Camps Bay with his later experience as a London maritime lawyer – dedicating himself exclusively now to championing environmental causes and climate change. In between speaking engagements and political activism, Pugh has breast-stroked in the meltwater of a Mount Everest glacier and completed the first ‘symbolic swim’ across the rapidly melting North Pole. His energy seems to have no bounds.

And yet today, as the 47-year-old continues to warm up from his latest hypothermic inducing swim, his face looks drawn, his shoulders slightly slumped. Were it not for the incongruous kayak paddle in his hand, he could be mistaken for a liberated prisoner being repatriated after a traumatising experience. When we do finally meet, Pugh still has the presence of mind to extend the same courtesy he did to Rosario – sizing me up for a reassuringly British handshake. As his five-man team are allocated into awaiting transport, we make unhurried small talk. But once we’re rolling towards downtown Santiago, Pugh gets straight down to business.

‘Anything more than just Speedos,’ Pugh says ‘would not show the right kind of commitment’‘Anything more than just Speedos,’ Pugh says ‘would not show the right kind of commitment’ (Image: Kelvin Trautman)

LOST IN THE ANTARCTIC

‘I’ve got a problem when people say we must protect an area because it’s got a great economic value. I think areas should be protected for their own intrinsic value,’ he says. ‘Take the Ross Sea with its emperor penguins, humpback whales and albatrosses. The whole place is just stark, and…’ Pugh pauses – swilling Antarctic memories amid the threats he sees to their existence – ‘incredibly beautiful’ he adds, a crack of frustration entering his British-South African lilt.

Pugh’s first swim in Antarctica was in 2005 at Deception Island, at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Almost a hundred years earlier a whaling station had been operational there. What he witnessed from his unique vantage point in the water, he today describes as the turning point of his life. ‘Whale bones,’ he explains, ‘thousands of whale bones beneath me, some of them stacked so high they nearly broke the surface of the water.’

What really shocked the swimmer though was not so much the exploitation of the past, but how humans have failed to learn from it: ‘First we came for the seals – within five years they were all gone. Then it was the whales, and then the toothfish [Chilean sea bass]. Now it’s the krill upon which all life depends in the Southern Ocean.’

Pugh’s swims attempt to engage global leaders and citizens not only with marine life protection, but with climate change too. ‘I am swimming in places where you shouldn’t be able to,’ he says in reference to melting sea ice. ‘The swims tell a story so simply that even a young child can understand.’

It was after his 2005 swim at Deception Island, he knew he had to do something about it. By the start of 2015 Pugh had completed several ‘symbolic swims’ around the world to increasing media attention and global interest. National Geographic claimed him as an Adventurer of the Year, and he became the UN Environment Patron of the Oceans, a high profile symbol of the United Nations’ environmental arm. However, it was his timing and subsequent actions following the –37°C Ross Sea swim that helped set the chain of events in motion for its landmark protection.

Pugh gets assistance combating the extreme cold following his Ross Sea swim (Image: Kelvin Trautman)Pugh gets assistance combating the extreme cold following his Ross Sea swim (Image: Kelvin Trautman)

ENDURING THE ROSS SEA

Approximately 2,770 miles from the scene of Pugh’s most daring swim in the Ross Sea, is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Life Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Tasmania. Established by the 22 Antarctic Treaty countries that had been protecting the continental landmass since 1958, CCAMLR is an international governing body that has safeguarded Antarctic oceans and helped develop scientific understanding since 1982. Today, its 24 member countries and the EU oversee the Convention area which covers roughly ten per cent of the Earth’s surface.

The need to offer additional protection to the Ross Sea arose in 1999 when American scientist David Ainley declared the area to be the least anthropologically affected stretch of ocean anywhere on the planet. ‘You can’t be a doctor of the oceans,’ Ainley has said of the Ross Sea, ‘without knowing what a healthy patient looks like.’ In 2012 the proposal to create the Ross Sea MPA and protect this largely pristine specimen for future scientific research was officially presented to CCAMLR members. By 2015, Russia was the only member to still block the proposal from going through to drafting stage. Persuading Russia to put pen to paper in 2016 was where Pugh now concentrated his efforts.

Pugh’s swims attempt to engage leaders with climate change

‘People think that the Russians held out on the Ross Sea MPA agreement because they have a big financial interest in Antarctica,’ Pugh reflects. ‘But it wasn’t like that.’ He describes how South Korea had actually extracted the most toothfish in the area during the 2014-2015 fishing season (some 780 tonnes) but even it had assented to the Ross Sea MPA. ‘It certainly didn’t help that the Ross Sea MPA was proposed by the US,’ the marine lawyer adds. ‘To find the consensus necessary it was best that neutral countries like South Africa or Namibia make the proposals.’

There were other problems. ‘That year was also a very challenging time for Russia,’ Pugh says. ‘The Malaysian airline had been shot down. There was the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and the Syrian conflict. There were also the sanctions against Russia and the collapse in the prices of oil and gas. The last thing on Russia’s mind was what was happening thousands of miles away, in a different hemisphere.’

As the Santiago temperature soars, Pugh seems to thaw out, shaking off any last trace of exhaustion and warming even further to his theme. ‘I felt that the argument for protecting this area had not properly been presented to Russia. The real issue had to be drawn to its attention.’

SLIPSTREAM TO PUTIN

The Ross Sea waves Pugh made in February 2015 reached Russia the following month when he met Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov in Moscow. It is perhaps no surprise that Pugh and the Minister for Sport, Youth, Tourism and the Environment hit it off.

Fetisov himself is a hero in Russia. His sporting prowess as an international ice hockey player in the 1980s and 1990s was recently remembered in the 2014 internationally-acclaimed documentary film Red Army. The British swimmer was clearly impressed, describing Fetisov as ‘a special person with a huge physical presence.’

‘Fetisov got me the access,’ Pugh explains, and more opportunities to connect with Russian officials followed. Over the next year he met with Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu, President Putin’s polar advisor, and explorer Artur Chilingarov, as well as the Russian delegation at the UN 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. ‘A good negotiation must never be rushed,’ he explains of his approach. ‘Don’t go in looking for confrontation. There has to be the belief that two parties can find common ground – Desmond Tutu told me that.’ Through their mutual love of cold water swimming, Pugh, Fetisov and the Russians would find just that.

In June 2016, Pugh was invited to swim in Russia’s Lake Baikal while representing the UN. As soon as he’d dried himself off he was put live on state television. ‘It was nearly an hour long,’ he says incredulously of the coverage. Fetisov, however, was not surprised about the interest. ‘Every single one of us,’ he explained to the British swimmer, ‘would have been taken to a lake or the sea in the very cold winter. We would cut a hole in the ice and we would jump in. We knew very clearly what you had been through.’

Common ground with the Russians extended to more than a shared sport. The 2016 annual CCAMLR meeting was to be chaired by the Russian Federation. ‘There is an environmental Glasnost, occurring in Russia,’ says Pugh. ‘There is an openness to discussing this topic which is now a top three political issue.’ When questioned if it’s possible that the population at large cares about the environment, even if the changes are not affecting them personally, he qualifies: ‘The Russians are very connected to their environment. They go into their forests, their lakes and the Arctic. People are beginning to notice the effects of climate change. On the street they are talking about the environment in a way that we don’t in the United Kingdom.’

A good negotiation must never be rushed. Don’t go in looking for confrontation

President Putin was taking notice too. A month prior to Pugh’s Lake Baikal trip, the Russian leader had declared 2017 to be the Year of Ecology. Actioning the new measures would be his right-hand man and former ex-KGB colleague, Sergei Ivanov. Pugh met the newly appointed Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport in his office. On the walls were pictures of Amur tigers and leopards; species the Russian minister had helped protect in 2015 during a meeting in the Kremlin with animal rights activist Pamela Anderson.

In contrast to Ivanov’s US counterpart, Scott Pruitt – who so far during President Trump’s administration has undermined, under-resourced and openly criticised the fundamental beliefs of the Environmental Protection Agency he is tasked to promote – Ivanov, Pugh vouches, ‘is someone who has a passion for wildlife and wilderness areas.’ Overall, the conditions were right, Pugh believes, for the historic signing of the Ross Sea MPA by mid-2016, but the appointment of Ivanov proved ‘the tipping point.’

The following month, in October 2016, Russia chaired the CCAMLR AGM in Hobart. They moved quickly and in the first week, Pugh explains, their standard Fishing Ministry representatives were hoicked aside and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs suddenly walked in. By the end of the talks, a protected area larger than Germany, France, Italy and the UK combined had been agreed for drafting by all 24 CCAMLR States and the EU. The Ross Sea MPA will come into effect from December 2017. ‘When we look back at the history of conservation,’ says Pugh ‘we will realise this was a very big moment.’

The two ‘ice men’ (Lewis Pugh on the left, Russian Minister for Sport, Youth, Tourism and the Environment, Viacheslav Fetisov, on the right) found common ground in their passion for sport (Image: Pavel Khokhlov)The two ‘ice men’ (Lewis Pugh on the left, Russian Minister for Sport, Youth, Tourism and the Environment, Viacheslav Fetisov, on the right) found common ground in their passion for sport (Image: Pavel Khokhlov)

THE ROSS SEA LEGACY

Pugh now wants six more MPAs approved before the 200th anniversary of Antarctica’s discovery in 2020. In West Antarctica these include the Bellingshausen Sea (named after the Russian admiral who explored the region in 1820), the Weddell Sea and the Scotia Sea where Pugh made his life-changing swim over the whale graveyard.

Plans for protecting East Antarctica are already in motion: this October in Hobart, CCAMLR members Australia, France and the EU will propose the creation of three MPAs comprising the Davis Sea, the Somov Sea and the Corporation Sea. Russia has not fished these three areas in the last decade, making its acceptance of the proposal all the more likely. ‘By 2020 I want to have an area of seven million square kilometres protected,’ says the swimmer. ‘That’s approximately the size of Australia.’

Yet for all the ambition and progress, the Ross Sea MPA agreement only stands for 35 years. When asked about the sunset clause, Pugh says he was against it. ‘It was the Japanese and the Chinese who wanted it,’ he explains. ‘They are concerned about feeding their nations.’ The hard-won protection of marine life in the Ross Sea; the safeguarding of Antarctic ecosystems and the commitment of nations to environmental policies for now offer only temporary assurances.

We’ve barely even touched upon Pugh’s latest perilous swim at Half-Moon Island and he’s almost dismissive when pressed about his own feats. ‘Swimming is just to carry the message,’ he states. But images of the warm-blooded figure in iceberg-riddled waters convey a startling commitment. ‘I’ll be 83 when this expires,’ he declares of the Ross Sea agreement, ‘but I’ll be back down there swimming if necessary.’

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