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Lewis Pugh swims in the frigid waters of Cape Adare, Antarctica, completing the southern most long distance swim ever taken; Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

Adventurer to Attempt Extreme Swims to Protect Antarctic Seas—in Just a Speedo

A man in a Speedo is no match for a curious sea lion. Extreme swimmer Lewis Pugh and his team came to that conclusion pretty quickly last Friday when one of the massive marine mammals began to stalk Pugh less than 200 meters into a planned one-kilometer crawl in the waters of Campbell Island, located 700 kilometers south of New Zealand’s South Island. Pugh’s support team pulled him out of the eight-degree Celsius water. This was just the first leg of Pugh’s Five Swims Project, a plan to set records for the furthest south swims in history and try to protect Antarctica along the way.

“You cannot negotiate with sea lions. They are inquisitive, boisterous, and will grab you for fun,” Pugh posted to his Twitter account on February 14, after moving on from his planned swim of Campbell’s Perseverance Harbour, a long fjord on the uninhabited island at 52 degrees south latitude. While sea lions have not been known to prey on humans, they will bite or toy with swimmers, and that could be catastrophic with Pugh already pushed to the limits of exertion in water close to freezing. Pugh will attempt all five swims in nothing but a Speedo, cap, and goggles—a requirement for the Guinness record.

“I can swim tomorrow,” Pugh later posted on his feed, noting that there have been only three other times that he had to be pulled out of a swim. “But if a sea lion grabs me today, the whole expedition is over.”

The water will only get colder and rougher, however. From February 15 through 17, a vicious Southern Ocean storm battered Pugh and his team, which includes South African photographer Kelvin Trautman, as they made their way to the second stop, Cape Adare, at 71 degrees south latitude on the Antarctic mainland, which they hope to reach today. Here, Pugh plans to make a one-kilometer swim in the Ross Sea, where water could be 0 degrees Celsius or colder.

If he succeeds, he will break the record for the southernmost swim on the planet, which was set in 2008 by South African Ram Barkai, who notched his one kilometer at 70 degrees south. Barkai and a team of five others plan to set the record to swim an “ice mile” (1,650 meters) at 66.6 degrees south this month in an effort to raise awareness for the World Wildlife Fund’s SA Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

Pugh, who has been soaking in ice baths for weeks to prepare for Five Swims, won’t stop at 71 degrees, though. He hopes to break this record on his third one-kilometer swim on Sunday at Cape Evans, at 77.6 degrees south on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. There’s more. He will then break that record on his fourth swim, scheduled for February 28, at Bay of Whales, which, at 78.5 degrees south latitude, is the most austral open water on the planet. Pugh will then top the whole project off with a last one-kilometer swim at the relatively balmy latitude of 69 degrees south off volcanic Peter Island on the Bellingshausen Sea, on March 7.

The 45-year-old Briton has already pulled off some impressive aquatic feats. including a kilometer in the Arctic Sea in 2007 in minus 1.7 degrees Celsius that left him without full feeling in his hands for four months. He has stroked through the waters of 17,000-foot Lake Pumori at the base of Mount Everest. Last year, he swam the Seven Seas of the ancient world—which included the extremes of a three hour crawl through 30 degree Celsius water in the Red Sea and a 12.7-Celsius paddle up the Thames. These feats earned him a nod as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2014/15.

The point about #preparation is that it changes your sense of what is possible. (Pic: @kelvin_trautman)

A photo posted by Lewis Pugh (@lewispugh1) on

Pugh is not simply making these insanely cold swims to prove his athletic prowess, however. He’s doing it to protect one of the last truly wild places on Earth. A World Wildlife Fund ambassador and United Nations “Patron of the Oceans,” Pugh wants Five Swims to help protect the wildlife of the Ross Sea through the designation of a 1.34-million-square-kilometer Marine Protected Area (MPA), an act that would be made by the multi-national Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and would limit human interference in the fragile ecosystem.

The Ross Sea is home to diverse flora including emperor penguins and the Antarctic toothfish, with a heart that beats only 10 times per minute to conserve energy. Cape Adare, site of Pugh’s next swim, is home to more than 250,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, the largest colony on the planet. The Bay of Whales got its name from famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton due to the large number of orca he spotted there. The final swim at Peter Island is the site of a leopard seal colony, another aggressive species that could cause Pugh more problems.

“Over the past 30 years I’ve seen the devastating impacts of overfishing and climate change on our oceans. If we allow the Ross Sea to go the same way, its unique riches may be lost forever. My hope is that these symbolic swims will bring the beauty and wonder of Antarctica into the hearts and homes of people around the world so they will urge their governments to protect this unique ecosystem, which is truly a polar Garden of Eden,” Pugh said in a statement.

CCAMLR, which was established in 1982 primarily to stop the commercial over harvesting of all-important krill, is responsible for managing the marine ecosystems of Antarctica where, by treaty no nation is sovereign. CCAMLR members consist of 24 nations, including the United States, and the European Union. It is currently chaired by Russia. Pugh, who works as a maritime lawyer, has put the pressure on CCAMLR with Five Swims to make a bold choice in its management of the Ross Sea.

Pugh hammered home the point in an op-ed entitled “Will Russia Save the World?” He plans to head to Moscow when his expedition is complete. “There are those who will say that the world is entering a ‘new Cold War’. They will argue that Russia is distracted by pressing conflicts closer to home. I passionately believe that there is no more pressing issue right now than the protection of our global resources. If we are to find lasting peace between people, we must first make peace with nature,” he wrote.

How else to push Russia and CCAMLR along? The power of social media of course. Pugh has urged those following and supporting the Five Swims and his conservation efforts to take to Twitter with the hashtag #5swims to advocate for the MPA.

“The time has come for nations to protect the last great wilderness, the Ross Sea,” he declared last Tuesday as he began his adventure. And now the time has come to see if Lewis Pugh can do that by simply wearing a Speedo and promoting a hashtag.