Risking death, one man is swimming the world’s coldest oceans to try and save them from humanity

“If you’re not scared, you’re a lunatic.”
“If you’re not scared, you’re a lunatic.”
Image: Kelvin Trautman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Lewis Pugh realized just how extreme the conditions were when he saw a wave in the choppy Antarctic waters wash over his boat and freeze instantly, creating a layer of ice on the clothes and gear of the people on board. The sea, because it was salty, was already below freezing. But the air temperature was -37°C (-35°F). It was February 2015. Pugh was wearing swimming trunks. And he was about to jump in the water.

Pugh is the first and so far only UN Patron of the Oceans. The 47-year-old spends his days preparing, travelling, and then swimming almost naked in seas below zero, strafed by searingly cold winds, in waters where blue-white icebergs rear above the ocean surface and disappear into its depths. Before Pugh dives in, no person has tried most of these swims before, and so nobody knows what the body can withstand. ”Predators are a possibility,” he said. “Cold is an absolute certainty. Hypothermia is a given.”

Lewis Pugh before the Ross Sea swim.
Before the Ross Sea swim.
Image: Kelvin Trautman

Born by the coast in England and raised in South Africa, Pugh loves to swim, and he clearly likes personal challenge. His swimming career is a catalogue of firsts—like his 125-mile (200 km) swim down the world’s longest unfrozen fjord in 2004, which took 21 days—and of records broken and set.

But the increasingly dangerous challenges he’s undertaken in recent years, and the UN title awarded him in 2013, are focused on one goal. Pugh is determined to make world leaders listen to the message of climate activists and oceanographers who have been saying for years that the planet’s seas need protection from anthropogenic climate change, pollution, and over-fishing. He launches his own, fragile human body into the freezing waters in an attempt to protect them from all of humanity.

His most recent efforts have been concentrated on the Ross Sea, a tract of ocean off Antarctica that, campaigners say, is one of the last pristine seas on earth. That was where Pugh saw the freezing wave hit his support vessel. “You’ve got this ice shelf which is probably about 70 to 100 meters high,” he says. “And you’ve got these katabatic winds coming in from South Pole…and then just landing in the water; freezing and churning and gusting of ice cold water at minus 37. If you’re not frightened, you’re a lunatic.”

Driven to swim

It does perhaps require a certain level of lunacy to take on the particular kind of discomforts and terrors Pugh puts himself through. And it takes something else: an almost brutal focus and determination.

In one video, Pugh describes standing on ice at the North Pole before he became the first person to complete a long-distance swim there in 2007. He looked at the water and thought about his mother, his wife—what it would be like for them to lose him. He asked a member of his support team to watch him closely for signs of difficulty, and be ready to pull him out. The man pointed out he shouldn’t jump into the water while trying to prepare for both defeat and victory at the same time.

Lewis Pugh jumps into the Ross Sea.
Leap of faith.
Image: Kelvin Trautman

To me, Pugh describes a belief he ascribes to the Inuit: Everyone is followed by two wolves, he says, a good wolf and a bad wolf.

His good wolf says: “Lewis, you get in here…You’ve got a doctor on standby in case anything goes wrong. And you swim. And hopefully, with great photographs and great storytelling, your message can get to the world leaders and collectively, 24 world leaders plus the EU can protect this place.” His bad wolf tells him: “Are you really sure about that Lewis? Do you really think you’ve done enough training?…You really think politicians are going to listen to you, some little swimmer?” 

Which wolf wins? He answers: The one you feed.

The trouble with climate change 

Most environmental campaigners confront a painful dichotomy. On the one hand is the belief that it’s of paramount importance to halt global warming and mitigate its effects, protect the areas humans still haven’t destroyed—like virgin rainforest, or pristine oceans—and try to rehabilitate some of those we have. On the other hand is the very real fear that it’s already too late.

“I have the same battle in my mind,” Pugh says. “I can’t afford myself the luxury, though, of being pessimistic or cynical.”

In part, that’s because Pugh was brought up in a land that understands struggle. His first long swim was from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was for years held prisoner, back to mainland South Africa. An extremely thin, white 17-year-old, Pugh walked past black political prisoners before entering the water for a 4.3-mile swim that he “barely made,” emerging onto the shore after three hours, much of it spent in “agony.”

And yet, when he visited the island again as an adult, he realized he hadn’t known what real cold was. On that visit he met Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners who now looks after the museum the prison has become. Kathrada showed Pugh the cell where he had lived for 27 years, two doors down from Mandela’s, which was icy in winter and where the lights were never turned off.

“Real cold permeates your very bones,” Pugh says Kathrada told him. Yet before they left they walked past Mandela’s cell, and Kathrada held the bars and said: “I’d do it all over again for Madiba [Mandela].”

“Every single generation is faced with its issues,” Pugh says, reflecting on the visit. “Their generation was fighting for freedom, my parents’ generation was fighting against the Nazis…The single biggest issue facing us right now is the environment.”

Lewis Pugh in Antarctic waters.
Salt water freezes at -1.8°C.
Image: Kelvin Trautman

WhatsApp and Speedos

Pugh’s been swimming and campaigning for years, but the UN title has opened doors, he says. His work is negotiating with governments on behalf of the oceans themselves and the lives they sustain, both human and animal.

Crucially, he says, “it’s fast—there’s no red tape. If I want to meet a head of state I send their chief of staff a quick email or a Whatsapp message, and when do I want to meet them? I want to meet them next week.” Journalists have dubbed his method “speedo diplomacy.

His work on the Ross Sea is an example. For 17 years, campaigners tried to persuade governments of the European Union and 24 other countries—including a particularly resistant Russia, which has a fishing industry there—that a 1.55 million-square-kilometer (598,000 sq miles) patch of the Ross Sea should become a Marine Protected Area, the ocean equivalent of a national park. In October 2016, a year and a half after Pugh’s expedition, they finally succeeded. Pugh says there will be 5.5 million more square kilometers of Marine Protected Areas designated in the next three years, which with the Ross Sea makes an area the size of Australia.

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency sent a deeply depressing message to climate-change campaigners. America is the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 after China, but Trump has promised to cancel the only incipient US plans to combat domestic emissions, and to pull the US out of global efforts. He’s nominated a climate-change denier to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and an oil company CEO to be secretary of State.

Pugh, though, is concentrating on emerging economies, which are set to see the biggest growth in the coming years, and where he says he’s meeting very receptive audiences.

Lewis Pugh wrapped in a duvet.
Warming up begins.
Image: Kelvin Trautman

“[Climate change has] become a major political issue, especially in two countries: China and Russia. More so than any other place that I’m going to,” he said.  ”And for children [in Russia] it is the major issue. Because they’re going to have to live in this world. That gives me hope.”

If Russian children are deeply engaged with the issue of climate change, he says, so are the citizens of Mumbai, India, who have come out every day for 60 days to clean detritus from the city’s beaches. For young people and children, he says, there is no more important battle than the one he’s chosen to fight.

That’s also true for another group: the mothers of those children. Pugh’s friends tease him that many of his Twitter followers describe themselves as, for example, “Sandy from Texas, mother of two”—the implication being that he’s something of a sex symbol. But he has a different interpretation. “Our biggest support base are the mothers of two,” he says. “They’ve got skin in the game.”