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Diving in the deep – swimming the English Channel to protect the UK’s waters

  • Written by  Sophie Donovan
  • Published in Oceans
Diving in the deep – swimming the English Channel to protect the UK’s waters
19 Jul
With the war against plastic gaining publicity and popularity, one question being asked is why the UK isn’t leading the charge?

The mission against waste is one gaining increasing publicity and popularity. Newspapers, organisations and governments everywhere are discussing how better to marry the objectives of development and environmental protection.

Certain faces are leading this battle. Ocean ambassador Lewis Pugh has literally thrown himself into it, currently swimming the length of the English Channel to highlight the problem of single-use plastics, while Surfers Against Sewage chief executive Hugo Tagholme is prompting more than 75,000 people to take part in clean-up operations at their local beaches.

Pugh, while depicting himself as a ‘water baby forever’, has been named by the UN as a ‘Patron of the Oceans’. The endurance swimmer and advocate has long been recognisable as one of the faces pushing hard against plastic pollution and environmental degradation. Since leaving his position has a maritime lawyer in 2003, no ocean has been left untouched. His previous efforts in the Ross Sea had a big impact: not only was he a storm in the media, but he also prompted remarkable progress in terms of protection. The Ross Sea now boasts the largest protected area in the world; Pugh’s excitement and relief are notable as he stresses that it is ‘the size of Britain, France, Germany, Italy all put together’.

Lewis Pugh

Now he believes ‘it is time to bring the message home’, with his next effort placing him adjacent to the British coastline. The Long Swim covers 560km over 50 days – ‘the Everest of swimming’ according to Pugh. His goals are to foster greater protection for the South Sandwich Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean, to improve awareness about the problem of single-use plastics, plus to garner full and proper protection of all UK waters.

In the eyes of the Marine Conservation Society, one of the UK’s leading marine charities, extreme efforts such as Pugh’s are useful ‘not just in driving attention to things that are already the focus of public attention, such as plastic pollution, but also show some of the hidden and complex threats our seas face. Pugh is highlighting the dreadful lack of protection our seas are given; we’re used to protecting wildlife on land, in nature reserves and parks, but this isn’t being transferred to the ocean where over-exploitation and damage lies hidden to human eyes. The mix of amazing endeavours [Pugh’s] and the cause [the environment) is really compelling.’

Pugh’s biggest concern is whether the UK will take this opportunity to become a ‘champion’ of ocean protection. He stresses that ‘we can do better, we must do better’, but that what is required is the willingness of the government around him. He wants the UK to be able to boast of one day having the world’s largest marine protected area, rather than just the 7km2 of waters that are currently fully protected by legislation.

(MPA Mapper: JNCC © copyright and database rights http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5201)

Below the governmental level, there is a degree of marine protection action already taking place in the UK. Much of this is coming from a more bottom-up approach, consisting of public individuals and NGOs launching more localised initiatives. Surfers against Sewage (SAS) is just one example of the public taking matters into its own hands. Initially a self-proclaimed ‘single-issue’ organisation, SAS’s focus was on, as the name suggests, sewage. Now, nearly 30 years after its founding, and with a range of people and a mass of motives, it is also finding itself fighting for better marine protection at a more general level.

Its latest endeavour sees it supporting Pugh on The Long Swim with a series of ‘beach clean-ups’ along his route. However, chief executive Hugo Tagholme accepts that ‘we can’t simply pick our way out of the problem’, a motive evident in another of its big schemes: plastic-free communities. By tackling the demand for plastic through campaigns for usage reduction at an individual level, the number of straws, bags and bottles on beaches should become reduced as a result. Yet, without the government aiding from a top-down level in a cut down of their use, SAS fears that there is only so much an individual community can do.

Lewis Pugh

Both Pugh and SAS have had the media exposure to be able to partially achieve their goals. Lewis’ sponsorship with Speedo has given him access to training facilities and contacts to widen his influence, while SAS’s publicity efforts have aided in encouraging more and more people to take on a beach cleaning operation.

However, there are those floating under the media surface that are also reinforcing the need for ocean protection. Ben Hooper, for example, previously took on the Atlantic Ocean in 2016. His goal: to swim from Senegal to Brazil, all 1,763 miles. Yet, five per cent of the way into his journey, jellyfish and irreparable boat damage cast the mission ashore.

While he succeeded in raising £15,000 for charities including SOS Children and Addaction, he also succeeded in a more subtle form of ocean advocacy. In the little publicity he did gain prior to the event, he often detailed pollution as an obstacle he’d have to face. Evident again were acknowledgments of the problem of pollution, again highlighting that there is only so much the individual can do.

Lewis Pugh

When Pugh, Tagholme, or other less well-known individuals discuss the desire for the UK to take charge, they’re not only talking about the populace. What they want is widespread, official governmental involvement.

Of the Long Swim, Pugh freely admits that he ‘doesn’t know how’ he’ll complete it, but knows that he ‘will see the White Cliffs of Dover’. More pertinently, he’s hoping to see a parallel here with official, top-down ocean protection measures. He’s unsure just how marine protection will be prompted and managed by the government, but he knows something must happen. The question is how long until the officials dive in too?

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