South African endurace swimmer Lewis Pugh has completed a series of swims in some of the world’s most inhospitable oceans including the Arctic and Antarctic to raise awareness of the impacts humans are having in these remote places.
He recently completed an epic one-kilometre swim in the Arctic. It took place along the edge of the Arctic sea icea in -0.5°C waters and was completed in a bracing 22 minutes.
He made a documentary on his experiences, which will be broadcast on Sky News in the UK on Wednesday 20 December at 2100 local time – and will be available online to view after that transmission.
When you’ve been swimming in the Arctic and the Antarctic, what impact have you seen on these oceans?
I have been swimming in the Arctic since 2003 and I’ve seen such enormous changes there in the intervening years. In 2005, I was training off the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle and the water temperature was five degrees Celsius. I went back there again this year to train and the water temperature was 10 degrees Celsius. That’s half a degree per year and such a sharp temperature rise illustrates how we are having such a devastating impact on the environment. So by swimming in these inhospitable and remote parts of the world, I’m trying to show world leaders the rate at which changes are happening and how this is going to have an impact on people across the globe.
What impact are we having on the oceans?
The three big impacts we’re having on the oceans are climate change, overfishing and pollution. Wherever I swim, I’m witnessing the impacts of overfishing. When I did my first swim off Robben Island in Cape Town, when I was 17-years-old, there were penguins darting underneath me and now penguins there have all but disappeared. Penguins are a good indicator species of the health of the ocean, and, I believe these waters have been so overfished that these colonies can’t survive any more.
The Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme is monitoring the health of our oceans and the levels of microplastics within them. From personal experience, have you seen any evidence of pollution during your cold water challenges?
I can only describe the levels of pollution I’ve seen on my swims in the Arctic and Antarctic as horrific. I’ve swam close to the North Pole, around 1500km from the nearest town, and on all the beaches there has been plastic. It’s fair to say that there’s no part of the ocean that is plastic-free. I saw an autopsy of a fulmar, which is like an albatross, and it had 2g of plastic inside its stomach which is the equivalent of a human containing 20kg of plastic. The fulmar can’t eat so it eventually dies. It really is very tragic to witness.
That’s why it is so important that the Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme, which is passing through parts of the globe that we simply don’t have any scientific data on, collects information on the health of these beautiful places so we have a better understanding of the levels of plastics and CO2 and then use this information to raise awareness of the fact that we need to act now.
What do you think we can do to address this impact we’re having on the ocean?
Parents, teachers, businesses and governments need to understand the impacts that plastics are having on the environment. Also, coming to the Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit in Cape Town, it’s good to see the there is a platform to talk about these issues, understand what needs to be done and think about solutions to solving them. This is the starting point but we need to move away from talking about them and, very quickly, take concrete action.