Lewis Pugh

En­durance swim­mer, ocean ad­vo­cate and diplo­mat in Speedos, 47

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - In­ter­view by Les­tari Hairul Pho­to­graph by Ron­ald Leong

Swim­mer, ocean ad­vo­cate and diplo­mat in Speedos.

I am try­ing to cre­ate a series of pro­tected ar­eas around Antarc­tica. There will be seven of these na­tional parks of the sea in to­tal. I got the first one de­clared last year, and cur­rently, it’s the largest pro­tected area in the world: at 1.5 mil­lion square me­tres, it’s the size of the UK, France, Italy and Ger­many com­bined. I’m try­ing to get them de­clared by 2020 so, col­lec­tively, it’ll be the size of Aus­tralia. It’s the big­gest con­ser­va­tion plan in his­tory.

I’ve done big swims in the most in­cred­i­ble places on Earth. But noth­ing ever quite cap­tures that feel­ing of your first long-dis­tance swim when you put your feet down on the sand. It’s like, “Hal­lelu­jah!” I’ve of­ten won­dered what would have hap­pened to my life had I not fin­ished that first swim be­cause it had such a big im­pact on my life.

In Sin­ga­pore, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily see the ef­fects of over­fish­ing or cli­mate change, or the im­pact that we have on the en­vi­ron­ment. Go to the edges of the world, and you’ll see it. There are pro­found changes that are hap­pen­ing so quickly.

Last year, I went to do a swim in the south­ern-most body of wa­ter in the world, in a place called the Ross Sea. It’s the cold­est wa­ter on Earth. No hu­man had swum in this tem­per­a­ture of wa­ter be­fore. We sailed from New Zealand, all the way to the Scott Base, and then we came over to the Bay of Whales. I want you to imag­ine a wall of ice that is at least 100m high, and this wind com­ing in from the South Pole. The air tem­per­a­ture was -37. The wa­ter’s -1.7. You’ve got killer whales, leop­ard seals, all these ter­ri­to­rial an­i­mals that have never seen a hu­man swim­ming be­fore. I re­mem­ber watch­ing my sup­port boat, and see­ing a wave crash against its side and ac­tu­ally freeze there. That’s how cold it was. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. When I’m in the UK, peo­ple find it hard to imag­ine why some­body would risk his life for some­thing like this. When I’m in Rus­sia, South Africa or Chile, or other coun­tries where peo­ple have re­ally fought for ba­sic free­doms, they get it im­me­di­ately. For me, it is an is­sue of jus­tice. This is the last wilder­ness left on Earth.

[On cli­mate change de­niers] It’s so strange. It’s as if these thou­sands and thou­sands of sci­en­tists are con­spir­ing against all of us. I did a swim on Au­gust 18, 2005, in Sval­bard, which is the north­ern-most is­land in the world. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture was 3°C. What do you think the tem­per­a­ture was last year? 7.8°C. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells, I don’t know what will.

I wish that ev­ery sin­gle kid in ev­ery sin­gle school vis­ited a na­tional park. When I was young, my par­ents took me to all the na­tional parks in South Africa. It’s hard not to love the en­vi­ron­ment when you see ele­phants walk­ing around you.

I don’t find the sea peace­ful. It’s con­stantly moving. I find real peace in the moun­tains. Some­times, I look at them and I think, hmm, it’s kinda tempt­ing; maybe I’d like to climb one.

Noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble if you have a strong enough rea­son to do it. If I didn’t, there’s no way I could get in the wa­ter. It’s deadly.

I’m try­ing to take a mes­sage around the world, and if you swim in Speedos, you know the me­dia are go­ing to fol­low you. I think that if I did it in a dry­suit, it just wouldn’t have the same im­pact.

For me, swim­ming is a way of car­ry­ing a mes­sage about the health of our planet. I want to swim un­til the last day of my life be­cause I want to be cam­paign­ing till then. It took 17 years of ne­go­ti­a­tions for the Ross Sea to be pro­tected. We sim­ply don’t have the time. What ac­tu­ally pre­vented those 21 na­tions in the EU from mak­ing that de­ci­sion in year one? I don’t know. So many peo­ple had to sign off on it. For me, it’s a com­plete no-brainer. If you don’t pro­tect this place, it’ll be gone for­ever. Do you need any more ev­i­dence than that?

I al­ways swim crawl. I rarely swim back­stroke. It’s the same with life. I look for­ward rather than back.

I qual­i­fied as a lawyer in the fi­nal days of apartheid in South Africa. A lot of my lec­tur­ers spent long pe­ri­ods of time in jail for fight­ing against this in­jus­tice. It was im­pos­si­ble not to be in­spired by them.

As a young man, I wanted my time to count for some­thing too. I sup­pose my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t make a mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion in life.

I be­lieve in bridge-build­ing, in dia­logue, in coun­tries work­ing to­gether to solve the re­ally big is­sues that we’re fac­ing. But I ap­pear to be in the mi­nor­ity these days. None of the ma­jor is­sues that we face can be solved by one coun­try alone be­cause they don’t stop at a na­tion’s bor­ders. They im­pact ev­ery sin­gle one of us.

I’d love to say that I’m dif­fer­ent from other guys, but I’m very nor­mal phys­i­cally. Any sci­en­tist will tell you that. I’ve had so many tests done on me. But I would say that I’m more de­ter­mined than most. I don’t ever want to give up, and that’s where my strength lies. Peo­ple ask me whether these swims are all in the mind or the body, and the an­swer is nei­ther. It’s about heart. If you have a strong enough rea­son, you can do al­most any­thing you put your mind to.

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