“‘Cold’ is a word that holds no meaning in a blizzard in the Antarctic Ocean. It was very difficult to breathe. I was gasping for air. I kept telling myself to keep calm. I’ve never experienced anything like it, ” says extreme swimmer Lewis Pugh of his record-setting swim.
Pughs hands were warmer when they were stroking through minus-one-degree Celsius ocean than when he raised them into the minus-37-degree Celsius air. Swimming in nothing but a Speedo, bathing cap, and goggles in Antarctica’s Bay of Whales, he watched as a 40-knot gusts picked up a wave and broke over his crew in the support boat. The seawater froze on them instantly.
But Pugh kept swimming on, surviving 350 meters of pure agony, in his quest to make five Antarctic swims to raise awareness for the ecosystem Ross Sea. That determination earned him the world record for the farthest south swim ever made by a human, in the most austral open water on the planet at 78.5 degrees south latitude, on March 2.
“The Bay of Whales is the most terrifying place I’ve ever swum,” the endurance swimmer and marine advocate said via email on Satellite phone. “The water temperature, the air temperature, and the wind combined made it lethal.”
Pugh got back in the water, however, four days days later, jumping into the frigid ocean once more at Peter I Island at 69 degrees south in the Bellingshausen Sea, which is named after the Russian navy admiral whose expedition is credited with discovering Antarctica in 1820. It was an important last stop for the British marine lawyer whom the United Nations has named Patron of the Oceans. The next big destination on Pugh’s record-setting Five Swims for One Reason expedition is Moscow, where he will attempt to convince Russia to spearhead an effort to create a Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA). Russia chairs the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which ostensibly has the power to manage Antarctic waters free of human profit in the same way as the mainland of the continent.
“These swims have taken it out of me,” Pugh tweeted after completing the project as Antarctic autumn took full hold of the southern oceans. But two humpback whales broke from the ocean as he finished the final swim, reminding him of his larger purpose, beyond setting world records, for taking on this challenge. “This is what it is all for,” he posted along with an image of the surfacing whales.
Pugh had planned on completing 1,000 meters on each swim, but the realities of Antarctic conditions made simply surviving each of the swims a historic achievement. On the first swim at Campbell Island on February 14, a large sea lion chased him back into the boat after 200 meters. “They are very inquisitive and won’t hesitate to bite you,” he said. Pugh swam 500 meters at Cape Adare, at 71 degrees south, on February 19, in minus-1.7-degree-Celsius water (human flesh freezes at minus-1.9), breaking the previous world record for most southern swim set by Ram Barkai who stroked through 1,000 meters in an Antarctic lake at 70 degrees south in 2008. Pugh’s third swim, at Cape Evans at 77.6 degrees south, had to be called of due to blizzard winds that made it impossible for the support boat to land. (Read our previous coverage of these swims.)
“Normally I swim 1,000 meters during my polar swims, but my main consideration is always safety,” he said. “There is a fine line between being courageous and being foolhardy, which should never be crossed. If I’d swum much further in the Bay of Whales, in those conditions, I would not be alive today. It was that dangerous. A long distance is entirely dependent on the conditions. Three-hundred-and-fifty meters is not a long distance in the English Channel, but in a blizzard in the Bay of Whales, it’s a very long distance!”
Extreme swims are not new to Pugh, a 2105 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year who has swum in the Arctic Sea and all seven of the seas of the ancient world. But this expedition was the culmination of his swimming and advocacy achievements. It took both intense physical preparation and a drive to make a point for him to pull it off.
“You’ve got to be physically fit, and mentally ready. But more importantly, you’ve got to have a driving reason. Something that you’re so passionate about, that you’re prepared to get into the water in the first place. For me, it’s about protecting our oceans,” he said via Satellite phone after setting the record. “Over a period of 30 years, I’ve seen our oceans change. And I don’t like what I see. I undertake these swims to campaign for marine protected areas, which are akin to national parks, in vulnerable ecosystems.”
To those who claim these swims are simply a narcissistic stunt, the World Wildlife Foundation ambassador, responds that it takes a shocking effort like his to get the world to listen.
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“Very few people have ever heard of the Ross Sea. It’s in the most remote part of the world. And no one lives there, other than a few scientists. How do you draw attention to such an important wilderness area, which is being heavily impacted by industrial fishing and climate change? Especially when the media is saturated with news of civil wars, famines, genocides, financial crises, and the like. Swimming in a Speedo in Antarctica captures the media’s attention like nothing else. And the public can relate to my commitment to the cause,” he said.
Pugh’s success on the fourth and fifth swims renewed his purpose. He has survived one of the most brutal ecosystems on the planet, but his next undertaking may be even more challenging as he attempts to leverage that physical performance in the political world. Will he be able to navigate the frigid waters of Putin’s Kremlin? Pugh thinks it’s best not to underestimate a man willing to risk death and make history to prove a point. And he feels he has the attention of the Russian public.
“Just look at all the publicity in Russia over the swims. It’s been more than any other nation, bar my own. Russia has a distinguished history in Antarctica. Five of the 13 seas around Antarctica are named after Russian explorers. They have 9 scientific bases here. They’ve invested so much in scientific research here. They don’t want to see the place destroyed for short-term economic gain,” he said.
In the end Pugh thinks it will take more than his efforts to ensure the protection of Antarctic waters. When asked what anyone concerned about the Ross Sea and inspired by his performance could do to help him in his quest to create a Ross Sea MPA he said: “I firmly believe the most important issue facing mankind today is the health of our planet. We are driving species to extinction, irreversibly altering ecosystems and leaving our children with a unsustainable world. I appeal to everyone to email the national delegations to CCAMLR and urge them to set aside the Ross Sea as a Marine Protected Area this year. Their email addresses are online at www.ccamlr.org/en/organisation/members. Collectively our messages will make a difference. And, crucially, please avoid eating Antarctic toothfish, which is sold as ‘Chilean seabass.’ By stripping them from the Ross Sea, we are altering one of the most incredible ecosystems on earth.”