Lewis Pugh freely admits that he has spent more time in cold water than any human being in history. As an endurance swimmer, his jaw-dropping track record of global ‘firsts’ is a testament to his ability to swim astonishing distances in the coldest water on the planet. Yet the man who has swum across the North Pole and braved leopard seals and icebergs in the Southern Ocean is remarkably modest about his own achievements. He speaks quietly and reflectively, but with a strong current of emotion running beneath his words. For him, the real question is not what he has done, but why he continues to place himself at the very edge of survival in some of the world’s most hostile environments.
Born in Plymouth and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Lewis spent every spare moment of his childhood either playing in the water or running on the beach. Both his parents had served in the Royal Navy, and gave him the freedom to follow his dreams. He trained as a maritime lawyer and served in the British SAS, but never lost his deep sense of connection with the ocean. Endurance swimming became his passion, and from Spitsbergen to South Africa’s Cape Peninsula he took on some of the world’s most gruelling physical challenges. What remained was for him to find a calling that filled his heart.
In 2005, when Lewis arrived at Deception Island in the South Shetlands, he had drawn together a team of doctors and scientists and was intending to examine the effects of extreme cold on the body during a one-mile swim – the longest ever in the polar regions. He knew that he would be braving water temperatures of 2°C; he was not, however, prepared for the grim spectacle that appeared beneath him as he swam. Thousands of bleached whale bones littered the sea floor, discarded by a former whaling station that had once butchered cetaceans on a massive scale in order to satisfy our greed for whale oil and ‘whalebone’ or baleen. Some of the bones were piled so high that he could touch them. Having grown to love whales from his encounters around the coasts of South Africa and Norway, Lewis was so disgusted that he almost called a halt to his swim.
It was a year later, in 2006, that Lewis considered the idea of using his expeditions to draw attention to environmental issues. He was about to swim the length of the Thames, an endeavour that offered the advantage of easy accessibility for journalists and news presenters; media coverage was therefore guaranteed. Lewis was already concerned about the effects of climate change on the environment; he decided to use his swim to support the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and somehow it felt as if a missing piece in his life had fallen into place. He wrote, “It wasn’t that I had found my calling, because it was there all the time, but, at last, I had recognized it.”
Swimming the length of the Thames – 350km from source to sea – was far more challenging than he anticipated. The river stopped flowing due to the drought, and the ten days that had been allocated turned into three weeks; on several occasions the stagnant river water made him sick. A day of acute vomiting was followed by a night in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, but he still managed to swim a kilometre the next day. On the plus side, the media attention was all that he could have wished. When he reached London, he was invited to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the country’s carbon emissions. Having started out with little knowledge about the science of climate change, Lewis was fast becoming a strong and well-informed advocate for the environment.
In 2007, when Lewis decided to attempt a one-kilometre swim across the North Pole, he was deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the polar regions. Two years previously, 23% of the Arctic sea ice cover had melted. At that time, however, most of the available scientific reports were complex and difficult to understand. He felt that the public, the media and politicians needed a simple explanation in order to grasp the seriousness of the situation. There could be nothing more symbolic than travelling to the top of the world and swimming across a stretch of open ocean that used to be frozen over.
“At the North Pole there would be one day, one swim and one opportunity to send ripples south and touch the conscience of people on every continent.”
It was easy to say, and another thing entirely to put it into practice. Being the first person to swim across the North Pole carried immense, unknowable risks. Lewis would be diving into water at a temperature of minus 1.7°C, which was very close to the freezing point of seawater, and somehow he was expecting his body to perform efficiently for the best part of 20 minutes. Irrespective of his intensive cold-water training, no one knew how his body would react to prolonged submersion at that temperature. As ever, there would be no wetsuit to mitigate the impact. On 15th July 2007, when he dived into the inky-black water at the North Pole, he was wearing only goggles and a pair of Speedo swimming trunks.
Swimming in a pair of Speedos across the North Pole is guaranteed to make front-page headlines, not least because of the photographs. Lewis’ decision had been a very conscious one. Quite apart from the simple but astounding fact that he succeeded in swimming for one kilometre in water that would have killed most humans within minutes, the implications of his achievement were unmistakeable. He was not, he says, swimming in Speedos for bravado. He was doing it because he knew it would be a world story… and he was urging world leaders to be courageous in their policy-making, in order to protect the world’s oceans.
Today, as the first UN Patron of the Oceans, Lewis’ voice is heard by leaders and policy makers worldwide. His message is clear and impartial, and his eye-witness accounts are irrefutable. He sees three main threats to the world’s oceans: over-fishing, pollution and climate change. As a direct result of his campaigning, over 2.2 million square kilometres of Marine Protected Areas have already been created, encompassing some of the world’s most fragile ocean environments. His next mission is to persuade world leaders to agree to fully protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030; he will focus on the Commonwealth countries, most of which have coastlines, because, as he explains, “our common wealth is our oceans.”
Lewis is quite candid about his fears. He faces them down repeatedly. Courage, he says, is a muscle which must be constantly exercised, and he believes that we each have an ability to tap into our own source of it. How we respond to the climate crisis is our own choice, but every individual has the capacity to make a significant difference. There can be no better proof of that than Lewis himself.
“We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism or even pessimism in our reaction to climate change. The situation is too serious. We must tackle it head on – and immediately.”
At Perth Concert Hall in September 2019, Lewis Pugh gave an inspiring talk entitled Achieving Your Impossible. Afterwards he was presented with the RSGS Mungo Park Medal by 13-year-old Duncan Kay.