Lewis Pugh: Braving ice cold oceans to protect marine life

WEF on Africa is illuminated by BrightRock, the first ever needs-matched life insurance that changes as your life changes because change is Africa’s agenda at WEF 2015. At the World Economic Forum, they bring some big names and here’s one of the biggest – Lewis Pugh. Lewis, is this the first time you’ve been to one of the WEF events?

This is the second. I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago, and this is my first one here in Cape Town.

What did you do in Davos?

I gave a speech on protecting Antarctica and now I’m back here, still talking about Antarctica.

Yes, that’s what we know you for. Before we talk about that, Tim Noakes: are you a Banting fan or are you still a Tim Noakes fan? He certainly has a lot of controversy in this country.

I’m a huge fan of Tim Noakes. I wouldn’t have been able to do my swims without Tim Noakes. He’s been the brains behind ‘how on earth can you swim in such, very cold water’. The thing about Banting is Banting is going to make you really thin and I need to be really big when I swim down to Antarctica. When he told me, “Lewis, you are the exception. I want you to do the complete opposite of everything I’m telling everyone else to do. I want you to be like a big walrus when you go and swim down to the Antarctica”.

Why do you swim there in the first place?

I’ve recently come back from doing a series on swims in a place, called The Ross Sea, which is the most pristine ecosystem left on this planet. I do it because I’m trying to get marine protected areas to clear it around Antarctica. These are like national parks and swimming is just a great way of telling a story. The first question people ask is, “Why on earth would somebody want to risk their life for this place?” and it starts a conversation.

The Ross Sea. Where exactly, is that?

If you sail for 5,000km south of New Zealand, you get to it. It’s the most remote ecosystem on this earth. It is the most pristine ecosystem on this earth but it’s now facing dramatic overfishing. What’s there? It is absolutely, magnificent. When you arrive there, it’s Adelie Penguins, Emperor Penguins, Albatrosses, Humpbacked Whales, Minke Whales, and Leopard Seals. It’s just, very beautiful. It’s an amazing place. The United Nations: are they helping you to try to get it protected? I’m the United Nations Patron of the Oceans. This area in Antarctica is governed by an organisation, called CCMALR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). Twenty-five countries sit around the table every year, to talk about these issues and for four years now, we’ve been trying to get a marine-protected area in the Ross Sea but unfortunately, every year it’s vetoed by Russia, so I did a series of swims. I then went off and met lots of ministers in Russia and I hope that this year, they’ll agree to endorse this marine-protected area.

What did you say to them?

It’s very interesting because any conversation in Russia actually starts with a history. They were quick to point out to me that it was a Russian – Admiral Bellingshausen – who discovered Antarctica in 1820 and of the 13 seas around Antarctica, five of them are named after Russian explorers and they feel passionate about the place. I told them how very important it is to protect these places because I’ve been swimming in all the oceans in the world and every single year, I’m seeing them change. Changing because of the climate change, overfishing, and pollution. I said, “You need to be on the right side of history on this one.”

Are they starting to agree?

I think they are. It’s a process. Currently, I’m shuttling between Moscow and Washington because it was the Americans who proposed this marine-protected area, so I shuttle between the two capitals trying to find commonality. It’s challenging because of what’s happening in the Ukraine and what’s happening in Syria. World leaders’ attentions are being distracted by all these other important issues and I’m saying to these world leaders, “Yes, these issues are important but the single, most important issue facing us right now is the health of the oceans and the health of the planets. Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”

How much chance do you think there is of this being derailed because of other geopolitical issues?

It’s always possible. For four years, Russia has not endorsed these plans.

It’s like a card, which they’re playing for other possible reasons.

They took me back into their history. I had a meeting with the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu and he said to me, “Lewis, we lost 27 million people in the Second World War. Twenty-seven million people fighting the Nazis. If it weren’t for us, Europe would be a very different place. We stood up against the Nazis. When it came to colonialism as well, we were the people who helped the Africans and the Asians to get their freedom from the shackles of colonists. When it came to Apartheid in South Africa, where did Nelson Mandela come? He came to Russia.” I said, “That may be the case, but you still have to be on the right side of history on this issue, which is protecting the environment. Every single generation is going to be faced with these issues. Yes, there was Nazism in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. It was colonisation in the 70’s and 80’s. In the 90’s there was Apartheid. The issue today is the health of the planet.”

How many of these reserves are there around the world – the kind of reserves that you want to see protected?

This one is unique and the reason why it’s unique is that it’s in the high seas. If you wanted to declare a marine-protected area off the coast of South Africa or America, it would be very easy. You’d just have to get one parliament to agree to it. Imagine trying to get 25 countries to agree to set aside an area of the high seas. It’s must more complex because of those 25 countries, a number of them have longstanding disputes. You have Great Britain and Argentina. You have America and Russia. You have Russia and the Ukraine. You have Japan and China. You have India and China. You have the lot of them in there and it’s difficult for them to refrain from bringing in their past/histories when it comes to these issues. I’m saying to them, “We have to be able to put those issues aside and just focus on saving this area”. The reason why it’s so important to save this area is that this is like a living laboratory. This is the most pristine ecosystem on the planet and it’s absolutely crucial, because scientists can learn from this – what a healthy ocean looks like.

Photo: Kelvin Trautman
Photo: Kelvin Trautman

Okay. You’re at the World Economic Forum and this is something that clearly, needs a lot of diplomatic powers when you’re dealing with these different countries. Have you had to apply any of those diplomatic powers here in South Africa or here at the WEF, given some of the strange things that are happening on this continent and also, in this country?

When you run a campaign, there’ll be three stages to the campaign. The first is to draw attention to the issue. The second is to gain access to policymakers. The third is to try to influence them. If you just draw attention to an issue, but you don’t have any solution and you don’t gain any access or influence, it’s just noise. The wonderful thing about the World Economic Forum is I can come here and I can have a quiet conversation with the policymakers and say, “Please. This is a very urgent issue. This is the reason why it’s urgent and this is what we want you to do”. It’s a great place to come and meet these leaders and have a heart-to-heart with them without any of the noise around.

You were involved in a panel on the Ocean Economy. Was there much there, which was surprising or new?

If I’m honest, there was a lot of talking. However, there were some very good participants on that panel who had some important issues to speak about. Often though, it’s not what happens on the panels, which makes a difference. It’s what happens behind. The small corridors over here where people sit down and they have a drink and people from all over the world speak to each other. What we realise is that when you speak to people from Ghana, Egypt, the United Kingdom, or wherever, a lot more unites us in this world than that which divides us. This is a place to find those commonalities and to build good systems around the world.