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"I've never felt #pain like this before. My fingers were in agony," said Lewis Pugh with Dr Rutger Stellke after swimming in the waters of Cape Adare; Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

Facing Setbacks, Extreme Swimmer Prepares for Last Chance at Most Southern Swim

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Pugh’s swim at the formidable Cape Adare was limited to 500 meters due to ice; Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

Adventurer Lewis Pugh has one last chance to break the world record for the furthest south swim in history. But the Antarctic is not kind to those who seek to push themselves here. Pugh, 45, has experienced setbacks and unspeakable pain while on his quest to make five Antarctic swims. But that will not deter him from one last shot, this one in the furthest south open water on the planet, wearing nothing but a Speedo, swim cap, and goggles, no less.

“Winter is coming fast. As we sail south, the sea is freezing around us,” tweeted Pugh on Saturday.

The British marine lawyer and ocean advocate began his Five Swims in Antarctica for One Reason expedition, which seeks to raise awareness about the creation of a Ross Sea Marine Protection Area (MPA), on February 13 at Campbell Island 700 kilometers south of New Zealand. But it has been a difficult voyage. He had to pull out after just 200 meters on that first swim when a curious sea lion posed a danger. The next swim, in minus 1.7 degrees Celsius water at 71 degrees south latitude at Cape Adare, was a success, marking the most southern swim ever attempted, but it was limited to 500 meters due to ice. Yesterday’s planned one-kilometer crawl along the Ross Ice Shelf at Cape Evans was cancelled due to a blizzard and vicious austral winds over 50 knots that made it impossible to land. (Read about Pugh’s previous Antarctic swims.)

“So desperately disappointed,” he tweeted.

Pugh, one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year, still has one chance to break the record of a one-kilometer swim, set at 70 degrees south by Ram Barkai in 2008, but it’s the most ambitious of them all. At 78.5 degrees south latitude, the fourth swim is planned for the Bay of Whales. It’s the southernmost open water in the world, though its accessibility is constantly changing due to shifting pack ice and calving glaciers, and it got its name for the killer whales explorer Ernest Shackleton observed there in 1908.

Will Pugh be able to make the historic fourth swim? That may have more to do with weather and ice conditions (and whether the marine life he is seeking to protect leaves him alone) than with his physical prowess. Pugh has made swims in the Arctic in minus 1.7 Celsius before and trained intensely leading up to this project.

“Given that Lewis Pugh is habituated to cold, is large with good muscle and body fat content and is a good swimmer, I would not expect him to suffer from cold shock (a big cause of death on sudden immersion for unhabituated people), or hypothermia if immersed for less than 20 to 30 minutes. This leaves non-freezing and freezing cold injury (frostbite) has his biggest threats. Sea water freezes at -1.9 degrees Celsius, human tissue at -0.53 degrees Celsius,” explains Professor Mike Tipton of the Extreme Environments Laboratory DSES at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

Tipton has undertaken numerous studies of the effects of cold water swims on human physiology, looking at a range of “wild” swimmers, from extreme athletes such as Pugh to triathletes.

“Lewis is able to do this because his body is habituated to cold water and he doesn’t stay in long enough to become profoundly hypothermic. He is a strong swimmer who can keep going even when his superficial nerves and muscles start to become incapacitated by cold. But he will not be immune to this as it is not possible to habituated to these neuromuscular problems,” adds Tipton.

The point of the project is not just to swim the southernmost waters on the planet, however. Pugh, who is a World Wildlife Fund ambassador and the United Nations’ Patron of the Oceans, wants to protect these very waters. He hopes the swims will raise awareness for the creation of a Ross Sea MPA, which would prioritize the well-being of the ecosystem over commercial interests. That designation would need to be enacted by the multi-national Committee for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is currently chaired by Russia. Indeed, Pugh plans to head to Moscow upon finishing the Five Swims expedition.

“In 1959 Antarctica was set aside as a place of peace and science. We must now do the same for its surrounding waters,” said Pugh.

That all leaves Pugh beholden to the whims of Antarctica, which has not always been kind to those seeking the limits of human achievement here. Cape Evans, where weather turned Pugh away on the third swim, was where explorer Robert Falcon Scott built a hut before perishing in his attempt to race Roald Admudson to the South Pole in 1911. And Pugh and his crew attempted to wait out the latest storm in a cabin built by Sir. Ernest Shackelton, who was famously stuck in Antarctic ice for months in 1915. Pugh can only hope to stay in open water.