Meet “Speedo Ambassador” Lewis Pugh, world’s unstoppable champion of Oceans

Lewis Pugh is an extraordinary man. Bestowed with natural advantages of adventurous genes, a strong body and an active mind, he has applied them to service. Last week Pugh celebrated five years of struggle to get 25 signatories onto a global agreement creating the world’s largest protected wilderness. But instead of basking in this legacy – or the eminently sensible route of taking a year off to fully recover from extensive back surgery – he is back in Cape Town to train with SA’s elite Navy Divers ahead of another speedo-clad swim in sub-zero Antarctic water next month. Pugh is determined to use his position as the United Nations’ Patron of the Seas to best effect. We got together earlier this week in London. Here is his incredible story. – Alec Hogg

I’m in one of the most beautiful spots in London with Lewis Pugh…do you come here often?

I do. When I come to London I stay near Hyde Park and I love to walk in a park. Over there you can see the Serpentine and when I need to go for a quick swim, when I can’t get to Dover, I jump into the Serpentine there and I have a quick swim around.

Even in winter?

Yes, even in winter, it’s still relatively warm.

The UN's Patron of the Seas, Lewis Pugh, taking time out in one of his favourite London spots - in Hyde Park overlooking the Serpentine
The UN’s Patron of the Seas, Lewis Pugh, at a favourite London spot – in Hyde Park overlooking the Serpentine.

People know you for your endurance swimming and the fact that you swim in the Antarctic, but maybe let’s just go back a little, your love for water, where did it all begin?

Well, I grew up in a naval family, my father was in the Royal Navy. I lived initially in Plymouth, in England as a young boy. We moved out to South Africa when I was ten, initially to Grahamstown and so I was quite isolated from the coast. But when I was 16 or 17 we moved down to Cape Town. I went to Camps Bay High School and my high school classroom overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and PT on a Tuesday morning would be down on the beach playing touch rugby and diving into the ocean. It’s not hard to imagine how a cold water swimmer comes from Camps Bay,

It’s pretty cold there…the Atlantic…

Yes, it’s cold down there and that was the best training ground you could ever have as a kid. I had my first proper swimming lesson when I was 17 and loved it. One month later I swam to Robben Island.

Presumably you knew how to swim before you went for a lesson.

Yes, well I could swim like most people here in Britain, so very basic. I could float, but I had proper swimming lessons for a month. Then I swam Robben Island and I loved it so much. I think the love came from two aspects. Number one, I just loved the physical action of swimming. I feel so good and so invigorated when I dive into the cold Atlantic Ocean and swim and the second thing was that no matter what I was going through at the time as a young lawyer, because I then became a lawyer, when I dived into the Atlantic Ocean and I took those first couple of strokes everything seemed perfect.

Not surprisingly you became a maritime lawyer.

Yes, because there has always been a deep love for the ocean and the people who make their living from the ocean or in the ocean. I do like fishermen, sailors, they’re fascinating people.

As a maritime lawyer, presumably there are many different sections to it. Where did you specialise?

I did a broad range of stuff, so some of the stuff was if cargo comes into a port and it’s late and you’ve then got to, depending on who you act for, you’ve got to make a claim because people are going to be losing money down the line. I did quite a bit of oil pollution claims, those were fascinating.

Presumably that exposed you to environmental issues too.

Yes, absolutely, so the first oil pollution case I was involved with was Exxon Valdez, so I came over to London. I worked in a big law firm called Ince & Co, which is the biggest maritime law firm in the world and we were dealing with the Exxon Valdez Claim. That claim went on for year after year after year.

What actually happened there? There are many people today who would not even know what you’re talking about.

Yes, this was in Prince William Sound in Alaska, a very, very beautiful part of Alaska, a massive oil carrier leaving harbour and coming out of Prince William Sound ran aground, spilt oil everywhere. The captain was drunk at the helm of the vessel.

So who were you fighting for?

We were acting for the insurers of the ship, who would obviously have to pay out a very, very big claim because of this.

What did it turn out to be?

There were so many different claims. At the time I was doing my articles there, so I was just doing all the discovery, which is getting all the papers and all the documents and photocopying them and paginating them, and getting them all in order to go off to the courts to file these claims.

From there you presumably did your Robben Island swim, you said this is for me. Is that where the endurance swimming bug bit?

It immediately bit. There was something about. It was just, I loved it so much and it was an interesting time in swimming because at that time, so we’re talking 1987, so we’re coming up now to 30 years of swimming. Now 30 years ago none of the famous landmarks had been swum, so Robben Island had been swum, the English Channel had been swum, Straight of Catalina, Gibraltar had been swum, but none of the other famous landmarks in the world had been swum and I had grown up with parents who had a deep love for history and they had written some history books together.

If you were to go around my house, you know, there was a painting of Captain Cook there, there was a bust of Lord Nelson on the one side, there was a beautiful old map of the world where Australia was named New Holland, it was so old this map and Antarctica didn’t exist and I would just look at these maps and I would just, as a young boy and just say “I really want to go to these places” and I always imagined what the people would be like in these places. So I was able to combine my love for swimming and my deep love for history and exploration and sort of roll it all into one.

None of the famous landmarks had been swum and then between three of us, an American swimmer called Lynne Cox, myself and a Slovenian called Martin Strel, we took every famous landmark in the world over a period of 20 years and it was like being Edmund Hillary, like being a mountaineer in the 1950’s. The problem came, was that I started a little bit later than them, and so I got left all the bloody cold stuff, but growing up in Cape Town, that was a good training ground.

Then you went for the really cold stuff, the Antarctica, what triggered that?

I was working in London and I’d done five years there, initially at Ince & Co and then at a firm called Clyde & Co, which was also a big maritime law firm and the work was interesting, it was well-paid but there was something missing and you know, you always think to yourself, “Is it going to get better?” and every new year you’re evaluating and thinking, “Am I in the right place?” because you get to a cut-off point where it’s very hard to exit law.

You then get a wife and you get children and then you’ve got a mortgage and you know, the ability to be able to make that exit is very difficult and also because mentally you start getting stuck in the same way of thinking. I was just with a friend of mine called David Becker the one day and I said to him, “You know, I desperately want to go to the Arctic” and he just said, “Go to the Arctic, Lewis” (this is the most important piece of advice I’d ever been given), he said “If you don’t follow your own dreams, you’re going to be following somebody else’s”.

So you went to the Arctic first?

Yes, I went to the Arctic first. I only went to the Antarctic back around 2005, but I went to the Arctic first, I absolutely loved it.

Were you able to just jump into the water?

Initially what happened was, I took a bicycle and I cycled from Bergen, the bottom of Norway all the way to the top and just before I got to the top I came to this incredibly beautiful golden beach in an archipelago called Lofoten, which is just a really beautiful part of Northern Norway and it was at the end of my holiday and I thought, “Let me just dive in here, just quickly” and it was a beautiful, beautiful… I mean in summer in Norway people think it’s going to be freezing cold. You can get some beautiful, beautiful days, the sun shining and the beautiful beaches, just nobody’ swimming.

I stripped down into my cycling shorts and I dived in and it was bracing to say the least and I thought to myself, just stay in here a little bit longer because my legs were really tired from having cycled all the way from Bergen. I stayed in a little bit longer and I decided to swim just the length of this beach and I got out the and at the end and I felt wonderful and all I could think of was, I’d done the most Southern swim in Africa. Perhaps I could do the most northern swim in Europe and so then I went to this place called North Cape and that was the actual place where I started – the most Northern point in Europe, where the real Arctic cold, cold stuff started.

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Lewis, presumably there was no money involved, how did you do it?

There was definitely money involved. This stuff cost a hell of a lot of money. I loved it, I absolutely loved swimming and being in the Arctic was… I don’t know, Alec, whether you have ever been to a place where it’s just so magical that when you arrive there, you feel this is where I’ve always meant to be and you feel such a connection with the earth, with the soil, with the environment? For me that’s always Norway. When I arrive in the Norwegian Arctic, I feel wow.

Fast forward a little to the Antarctic swims and Tim Noakes involvement there, because clearly you were able to stay in the water longer through science.

Yes, I mean you know nobody had ever swum in this water temperature before. We were now getting down to water below zero. Seawater freezes at minus 1.8 degrees, so we were no operating down at -1.7 degrees and the only way we could do this was, we built a special swimming pool in Cape Town at I&J and they gave us ice every day. Then we didn’t know whether it was humanly possible. I had a father who was in the Royal Navy, who had served in the last days of the Second World War and he would tell me the stories about the North Atlantic Convoys, you know, ships leaving Liverpool and New York and going to the Russian Port of Murmansk being sunk by German U-boats, sailors ending up in the sea and being dead within seconds, you know they weren’t pulling people out alive from the North Atlantic in the middle of winter.

So now you’re going even colder than that.

Yes, we’re going much colder than that, so you know the water in which these people were in the North Atlantic would be five degrees, maybe four degrees, now we’re in -1.7 degrees, it’s just another world altogether and the interesting thing about Tim was that Tim didn’t come from a swimming background, so he could test assumptions which people had always made that you couldn’t swim in those waters.

The great big breakthroughs occur very rarely in your own industry, they come from somebody outside who looks at something and says “Why are we doing it like this and let’s test the assumption?” and I said to Tim, I explained this to him, that these people in the North Atlantic, they die very, very quickly in warmer water, you know, people say it’s not possible, I’ll die and he looked at me with a big smile on his face, you know like Tim does and he says, “That’s an assumption I would like to test!” So we built this special swimming pool and then we just took the temperature down one degree every single day until we got down to about one degree and then we felt, “Yeah, now we can go for it”.

How long did you spend in the special swimming pool?

Always just one kilometre, so I always just wanted to do a symbolic swim, just one kilometre, which takes round about 20 minutes. We got down to one degree. What we didn’t realise was, the difference between one degree and minus 1.7 degrees is like the difference between Kilimanjaro and Everest, it was enormous.

So you got to the Antarctic?

Yes.

Were you supported financially at this point because clearly the numbers involved here must have been significant?

Then I had to learn the skill of persuading shipping companies to give me berths on ships and I started learning that around 2003, 2004, and 2005. So I’d be going, knocking on the doors of all the big shipping companies around the world, can you take me here, can you take me there and then trying to persuade them that there’s a good story, you’ll get good coverage on this whole thing, but what happened in Antarctica and there was this, you know I’d been going round the world’s oceans for… well, so I started swimming in 1987 and now we’re about 2004, 2005 and you start noticing just how they’re changing and then the real tipping point came with me mentally, it was 2005, I went to do a swim in Antarctica and I had to do it inside a volcano.

It was a volcano which had sunk in the sea called Deception Island and just a little part of it is open, so you imagine an island which is like a horseshoe shape, which used to be a volcano. I went in there and I stared swimming and underneath me were just hundreds and hundreds of whale bones piled high, almost to the surface of the water and there were rib bones and jawbones and spines and everything and they had been left there by the whalers who had dragged the whales into this caldera, slaughtered them and then used their blubber for oil.

I remembered as a young boy, the sheer joy of standing on the beach in Cape Town and seeing big Southern Right Whales and I had started noticing also just less and less fish, less and less penguins during Robben Island swims and I felt, there came a moment, in 2005,where, a slow awakening that I needed to be a voice for the oceans and a voice for the whales, for the dolphins, for the seals and for our children, for the unborn.

Then also the need to find ways that you could bring attention to this, including swimming in the Antarctic.

Yes, one had to be able to tell a story which was so simple that anybody could grab it. You can attempt to swim across the North Pole, well how can you swim across the North Pole; there’s ice over the North Pole. No, that’s why I can swim there now, because there’s even an open patch of sea at the North Pole, or you can do a swim in Everest. Well how on earth can you do a swim on Everest? Well because there are glacial lakes now appearing on Everest because of the melting glaciers.

So you had to be able to come up with a very, very simple story which would capture the imagination of the media, but the key was then afterwards to be able to, you know things had to move well past awareness these days and they now have to move into action very, very quickly and then go to the policy makers afterwards and try and effect change. That required a whole new set of skills. You can have access because of all the media you’ve had, but you can have no influence or you can have influence, but you can have no access. You need to have both; you need to have access to the policy makers and influence.

When the United Nations came along, because you’re the patron of the ocean for the United Nations?

That was a real tipping point there. Just to put it into perspective or to put it into context, the United Nations comprises lots of different organisations, UNICEF, which deals with children, the United Nations Environment Programme, which obviously deals with environment, lots of different things, so people like Angelina Jolie is the ambassador for the children, Leonardo DiCaprio for the Secretary General, etcetera and they were looking for somebody to be the voice of the oceans and it was a very, very important tie-in.

How did it come about?

It took a long time. I had a friend who knew the Public Engagement Director of the United Nations Environment Programme in Kenya. They started having a conversation, but it took three years to negotiate what it looked like and still that’s a very fluid relationship now.

How long had you been in that position?

Three years.

The big thing there was the Ross Sea. Now that’s the big news story of the moment.

Yes.

Again, to rewind a little what is the Ross Sea and what is so important about it?

Oh, it’s an amazing place. Alec, it is just… if you sail from the bottom of New Zealand and you sail for 11 days on a fast icebreaker South and you go past 40 degrees South, 50 degrees South, 60 degrees South, 70 degrees South and then eventually you’ll see the mountains of Victoria Land and the mountains of Antarctica and you’ll be sailing through sea ice, you’ll be sailing past enormous great icebergs. On the sea ice you’ll see these beautiful little small penguins, the Adélie penguins, you’ll see enormous great Emperor penguins, you’ll see Humpback whales, Weddell seals, Leopard seals, it’s like a polar Garden of Eden. The problem with this place was that the big industrial fishing fleets were moving down to catch the last big fish in the world, so about 90 percent of the world’s big fish are now gone.

So you go into the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian oceans, you know they’ve all been fished out and so the big industrial fishing fleets were now going as far South as possible just to get these type of fish called the Antarctic toothfish. They catch them there, they rebrand them as Chilean Sea Bass and then they sell them in high-end restaurants here in Europe or in the States and they were literally destroying this environment in front of us. A relative of the Antarctic Toothfish is the Patagonian toothfish. If you were to sail from the bottom of South Africa down to Antarctica, halfway there are the Prince Edward Islands and there were Antarctic toothfish around those islands, they were just poached out and it took about ten years and they were all hoovered out.

So they were starting to attack the Ross Sea and the fish.

Yes and the Ross Sea is so important for many reasons. Number one, because it’s the most pristine ecosystem left on the planet for scientists – and there are two very, very important scientific bases there, a big American base called McMurdo Sound and a New Zealand base called Scott Base. For the scientists, this gives them an idea what a healthy ecosystem looks like. It’s the least, there’s no ecosystem on this planet which isn’t touched by man, obviously because of climate change, but this gave them an idea of what a healthy ecosystem should look like, which is absolutely crucial to understanding for policy makers.

That was the reason why it was so important, but I think there is another reason and that is, when we allow these animals to literally be pushed to the edge of extinction, we lose something very, very precious deep inside us, you know. Not just with the Antarctic toothfish, but with rhinos, with elephants and other animals, we lose something very, very precious.

You made it your cause, you mission.

For me, it was a question of justice. I’d qualified out of UCT and I’d qualified in 1994. This was right at the time where Mandela was released and there wasn’t one lecture on constitutional law and administrative law, when our lecturer, Professor Hugh Corder did not say, you know what is justice, you know what are you prepared to stand up for and we had this beautiful constitution where everybody has the right to vote, everyone has the right to equality. For me even at a young age, I was looking at; everybody has a right to have a healthy environment, an environment protected for future generations. That to me was the most important thing because without that, what have you got?

You’re in maritime law, you’re defending or working with big companies, most people lose that drive, they’re called idealists, well the realities of life are different to the idealism, you never lost that. What’s your secret?

As I say Alec, for me it was a question of justice and different types of justice, the most important being that we need to have justice between species. This is the home of the Emperor penguin; this is the home of the Humpback Whale. These animals have been around for many millions of years and in the space of just a few years we’re going to not only destroy their home..

How did you start the whole process?

It’s not just justice between animals, but justice between nations. When we’re literally altering the climate of this world and that is going to have an incredible impact on developing nations and nations which are geographically placed in such a way that they’re going to be heavily impacted, like South Africa, Bangladesh, India, these countries, but there also needs to be justice between generations. We’re living our lives in such a way that our children and our grandchildren will not be living in a sustainable world.

Getting back to what you’ve down though, with the whole Ross Sea, it’s one thing to have an idea, how do you implement that given that you had to bring 25 countries together to agree to keep their fishing fleets out of there forever?

Yes, the big challenge was Russia. The reason why it was such a big challenge was, it was 23 countries, and the EU agreed they needed to this. They looked at the science, they looked at the data, and they said “We need to do this”. Russia said “No” and they had a number of different objections to it and somehow I felt, you know how can you draw a country’s attention to this when there in the Northern Hemisphere on the edge of the Arctic, and this is happening down in Antarctica, thousands of kilometres away, how can you draw their attention to it, especially now when you have so much happening domestically and in the Middle East. I was just thinking one day and it just dawned upon me, you know, Russia has the greatest cold water swimmers in the world. You need to begin a conversation and so I sailed down there, I hired a PR team in Moscow and I did a series of swims in there.

Where, in Russia?

No, down in Antarctica, in the Ross Sea and then I went there and it was literally front page stuff all over Russia. I arrived there and I was taken onto state television and just literally given a microphone. This was just 1 year after the Malaysian airline disaster where the Malaysian airline had been shot down in the Ukraine. The relations were very, very tough and here was a British guy coming in there and talking about Russia being part of the international community and I’ve never had so many interviews in such a short period of time, for three days solid, interview after interview, national television and then regional television and then small newspapers and then big newspapers. Then I was invited to meet some of the leadership and we began a conversation. It’s taken two years of sometimes, very frank and tough negotiations to get them to a stage where they felt comfortable to sign this deal.

Why were they uncomfortable?

They had a number of objections. The first one was there actually a need to have a marine protected area down there? Russia is a nation which has such a proud history in science and they wanted to see the data. Once that got across the line, well how big would this thing be, where would its geographic borders be, would there be an opportunity to do research still in this place or was it just going to be completely cut off from all fishing and all shipping whatsoever and then lastly there was a debate which was the most controversial aspect of it, which took a lot of time to get through which was the sunset clause which was that a number of nations (Russia was not the only one here) but a number of nations did not want this to be a protected area forever.

They wanted to have it for a certain period of time and then review the data and the science and if the fishing stock had recovered, could they then go back down there and fish again? And China and Japan led that discussion. You can kind of understand it from their position because we’re entering into a world now where we have well over seven-billion people, where we’re going to have food security issues, where people now are looking for food and when you have a domestic population, which in China is 1.1-billion people and you’ve got to feed them and you don’t want to be excluding possibilities now for the rest of time.

After the signatory, after everything was signed and that was earlier this week, does it mean that the Ross Sea is now indefinitely out of bounds for everyone?

No, for 35 years it is protected, which will take me to when I’m 81 and I can assure you if there’s any call in 35 years to open it up to fishing, I’ll be back there swimming at 81, it’s not going to happen!

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Thereafter, for yourself, Ross Sea is done for at least the next 35 years and hopefully there are going to be other Lewis Pugh’s that will make sure that even when you’re 81 that it isn’t going to be reopened, but what’s next for you?

This was a historic deal and the reason why it was so historic is, number one, it’s the biggest protected area in the world on land and sea, so it’s the size of South Africa and Zimbabwe put together. In European terms it’s the size of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy all put together, it’s enormous, 1.5 million square kilometres.

What kind of animals have they got there? You said earlier, Emperor penguins, whales.

Yes, it’s the penguins and the whales..

Do they know that they’re protected there?

Obviously krill is found there as well, which is the basic block of Antarctica.

Do they congregate there, maybe to breed?

They go down there because of the nutrients and because of the abundance of krill. It’s literally like the Serengeti, so you can imagine when you go to the Serengeti and you just see all the wildebeest walking across the veld and the zebras and the lions waiting. Well, there you have all the main predator species (one of which is the Antarctic toothfish) down there hunting, but then you’ve also got Leopard seals hunting, then you have Killer whales hunting. It’s a very, very special place, but the biggest implication as a result of this deal which we struck was that this is the first protected area in the high seas, large scale one in the high seas.

So more could come, as you now have a precedent?

Now I have a precedent and just remember, the high seas are those waters beyond your national jurisdiction – they represent 45 percent of the world. Therefore, up until Friday, when we struck this deal, 45 percent of the world was not protected. Now I’m going to be driving this ship very hard.

There are two practical things, fish farming, you mentioned earlier that there are a lot of people on earth and clearly food security is an issue. Is fish farming a good thing?

You know I was in Croatia maybe two years ago at a tuna farm and what was interesting is that they have to feed the tuna. So the tuna are in a big round net and they’re swimming around and around. And this was the first really big fish farm that I’ve been to. And they feed them a type of crushed sardine, but it takes about ten kilogrammes of that food in order to produce one kilogramme of tuna. It’s crazy when you have a hungry world! This is all about taking those sardines and then feeding it to the tuna and then feeding the wealthy in Japan and other parts of the world for sushi. This is not going to solve our problems; it’s only going to exacerbate them.

So fish farming would not get your support. You’re not going to go swimming in fish farms to try and raise more money to be invested there?

I think it’s the wrong way of looking at things.

How can you look at it then?

It’s a complex issue.

However, there are many alternatives to commercialisation in this way.

I think if we’re frank, we’ve got to open up a discussion about how many people there are on Earth, and that’s always a very, very uncomfortable discussion. David Attenborough who in Britain has had this discussion recently and he seems to be facing an awful lot of uphill, but this world was not built for 7-billion people. Just to give you an idea of how quick this growth has been, my father was born in 1920 and the world’s population round about then, I think it was 1.8-billion people. It was 3.6-billion when I was born and we’re now 7-billion and we’re expected to be 9-billion by 2050. In two generations we’ll go from 1.8 billion to 9-billion people. It’s just not sustainable and until we can come to terms with that and around the world, animals and wildlife are always going to be at the brunt end of this and when you destroy their environments you’re actually destroying your own as well.

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Getting back to the fish themselves, do you eat all fish or are there certain fish you eat?

No, I don’t eat any.

You don’t eat any fish?

No, I do not at all.

Are you a vegetarian then?

I’m not a vegetarian. Occasionally I’ll eat chicken and occasionally some beef, but our oceans are being so over-fished now that it would be very hypocritical of me to be eating fish and yet at the same time calling for an end to over-fishing.

So there’s no fish that you would believe is un-endangered?

Well, I suppose if you were to eat some trout which has been caught in a lake in the Natal Highlands, you could be doing that on a sustainable basis, but not in the world’s oceans at the moment, not from what I’m seeing.

What’s next for you? You are a little bit older than when you started swimming, you might go back to the Antarctic, but only as you say at 81.

No, I go back now in a months’ time.

Are you going back to swim?

Yes, absolutely.

Would that be again to raise awareness?

No, to get another national park down there, to get another marine protected area down there, so the Ross Sea is on the New Zealand side, I’m now going down to the Argentinian and British side just below the Falkland Islands and there’s an area there called the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s facing the fastest climate change, it now has increased tourism, it has fishing companies which are coming in there and catching krill right next to the penguin colonies. This area also needs to be protected.

We’re now looking at, over the next couple of years at least three enormous great marine protected areas down there. So one in the Antarctic Peninsula, one in the East Antarctica, one in the Weddell Sea, which is to the South West of South Africa. These things are all going to require consensus. I’m going to have to be shuttling backwards and forwards again to Russia presumably to get these deals across the line, so it’s going to be a busy time, but they start with shifting public consciousness and the only way you can do that is you strip down to your Speedo and get in there and get the job done.

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