Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

Photograph by Kelvin Trautman

Swimmer Lewis Pugh

A pioneering extreme swimmer becomes an eyewitness to the health of the world’s seas.

“How do I bring the oceans into people's living rooms? Onto people's newspapers?” asks swimmer Lewis Pugh. “It has to be a David versus Goliath story—a swim where I am about to be grabbed by a polar bear, mauled by a leopard seal, freeze to death, or die of altitude sickness.”

Lewis Pugh once swam one kilometer at the North Pole in water so cold that the cells in his fingers burst. Three years later, he nearly drowned swimming in the thin air of Lake Pumori, which sits at more than 17,000 feet near Mount Everest’s Khumbu Glacier. This past August, the 44-year-old became the first person to complete long-distance swims in each of the Seven Seas that surrounded the ancient world: the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian, and North Seas. These long swims in extreme locales, all of which he does in nothing more than a Speedo, have one goal: to call attention to the degradation of our environment, and particularly our oceans, before it’s too late for them to recover.

“Lewis is forcing us to look for solutions,” says Enric Sala, director of the Pristine Seas project and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. “He is not afraid of swimming in freezing waters or near giant oil tankers, because he knows that the health of the ocean depends on our understanding of the problems.”

Pugh, the United Nations Patron for Oceans, swam ten kilometers in six of the seas, and 60 kilometers from the North Sea up the Thames River. Pugh chose the locations of his swims based on their proximity to policymakers and leaders he hoped to reach, and to illustrate both the worst degradation and the most hopeful recovery. He ended the expedition at the Thames Barrier as a reminder of the 50 times the barrier prevented rising sea levels from flooding London this past winter. Thirty years ago, the engineers who designed the barrier anticipated they would need to deploy it just twice a year.

With his seven swims, the South African marine lawyer urged policymakers worldwide to set aside 10 percent of their oceans as marine protected areas—essentially underwater national parks—to combat the damage humans continue to cause by overfishing, littering, and polluting waterways through shipping, dumping raw sewage, and poorly managing coastal development. Currently, only 3 percent of oceans are protected.

The climate of Pugh’s seven swims varied wildly. In the Red Sea, he swam three hours through 129℉ midday heat in 86℉ water. One week later, he swam the 55℉ Thames in the middle of the night in order to comply with the demands of the tides and the harbormaster. In the Black Sea he swam through choppy seas, while the Adriatic was completely flat.

Pugh’s swims had troubling similarities: In all of his seven swims, he did not see a single shark, dolphin, or fish longer than his hand. He found the Black Sea swarming with invasive jellyfish, brought in on the ballasts of ships from America’s East Coast. He swam over coral reefs bleached by the rise in water temperature caused by climate change. He swam over a shallow section of the Aegean Sea and the Red Sea that looked like underwater deserts, devoid of life, and littered with tires, plastic bottles, and cans. Yet, only two kilometers away, he swam over the Aqaba Marine Park. He found red, yellow, green, and blue coral teeming with schools of orange Anthias fish.

“If there was ever any doubt in my mind that marine protected areas work, that confirmed it to me,” says Pugh. “Nature can recover if you give it space. These problems are eminently solvable, but they're going to become very urgent, and potentially unsolvable.”

Determined to do everything he could to get his message across, Pugh and his small team slept four hours a night for the entire month. On an average night, Pugh would give ten interviews in time zones around the globe, update the project’s social media feed, skim through a thousand online comments, respond, personally, to 50, then quickly fly on to the next location.

“Was it worth it? Absolutely,” he says. “At the moment I'm seeing the environment being very, very badly damaged [and] the impact which that is going to have, especially on the poor in the world and on developing nations, is going to be acute. I need to stand up, and start swimming. I will swim until the last day of my life. That's my calling.”

—Jen Altschul


National Geographic Adventure: What was the first swim you did that had an environmental component to it?

Lewis Pugh: I went down to Antarctica in 2005, and I swam off an island where there had been a big whaling station many years previously. The water was quite shallow, and, within a few strokes, I realized I was in a whale graveyard. There were whale bones everywhere; jaw bones, spine bones, rib bones—sometimes piled up so high that it was almost near the surface of the water. As far as the eye could see, there were white whale bones. The whalers had dragged the whales onto the beach, slaughtered them, and then dumped their bones back in the sea.

I had grown up in Cape Town, and, as a young boy, I had seen whales come along the coastline there, surging out of the water and smacking their tails and having their calves. Through our own sheer folly, we brought these animals to the brink of extinction. That [swim] was the first time where everything started dovetailing for me. These adventures took on a very different meaning. They really had depth and purpose to them.

NGA: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to environmental recovery?

LP: We always deal with the urgent stuff, you know, phone this person, do this, do that, but we forget the important things in life, like being with our children, taking holidays, visiting a dentist, exercising every day, eating properly. The way humans behave in an individual way is being replicated on an international level. And the problem with this situation is that unless we take the measures right now to protect the environment, these problems are unsolvable 20 to 30 years from now. The world leaders are so busy focusing their attention on trying to solve issues in the Middle East, in the Ukraine, in North Africa that they are not concentrating on something which is going to have a profound impact on every single one of us throughout the world unless we solve it right now.

NGA: What was the most challenging moment of your swims?

LP: The world is divided between pioneers and followers. You're either a pioneer, or you're a follower. If you climb Everest today, you know that hundreds of people have climbed it before you. If you swim across the English Channel today, you know that hundreds of people have swum across it. If you fly to the moon today, you know that dozens of people have flown to the moon. You know it's possible. I didn't know at the end of the [North Pole] swim whether I was going to be alive or dead. And no amount of bravado will put that aside—that fear deep inside your stomach.

NGA: Did you have a moment like that on the Seven Seas expedition?

LP: When I tried to do my swim in Britain, the harbormaster of the Port of London said no. Now, I had swum the full length of the Thames before, but he said to me, "It's too dangerous. You might drown." We had to get lawyers involved. In the end, it was amicably resolved, and he allowed me to swim up to the Thames Barrier, but when you're trying to do things in life, when you're trying to pioneer, you will face these niggling things. Somehow you have to get over them, get under them, get through them. Whatever the case may be, you cannot allow red tape to get in your way, because there just seems to be so much of it in the world these days.