Endurance swimmer, ocean advocate and diplomat in Speedos, 47
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.