Meet the man who is about to take a dive into the coldest place on earth to spread the word about climate change

A WEEK ago Lewis Pugh, midway through his training camp on the Isle of Lewis for the pioneering endurance swim he is about to do in sub-zero East Antarctica, opened his door in Tong to a storm. The winds, he recalls, were around 90 miles an hour and rain was coming in horizontally.

This was the weather the ocean advocate and UN Patron of the Oceans had come to the Outer Hebrides for. It didn’t daunt him. Pugh, who was the first man to long-distance swim in all seven oceans, across the North Pole and in a glacial lake on Mount Everest, has known more terrifying extremes.

“The wind was so strong it was difficult to close the front door,” the 50-year-old says. “I realised this really was simulating the conditions I’m going to find in Antarctica.”

Rather than swim in the sea, and “risk others’ lives”, such as those of the RNLI, he headed with three training companions for a loch on the island, and found what he describes as “some of the most atrocious conditions I have ever experienced”.

“It was the type of waters you would only go into if a child was drowning,” he says.

The environmental campaigner, who has been swimming the world’s oceans for more than three decades, believes the world is in a situation that requires the urgency we might give to a child drowning. It’s that sense of alarm that is driving him to swim across a supraglacial lake in Antarctica on January 22 – a feat he hopes will help persuade governments to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica and tackle climate change. It is what is behind what has been described as his “Speedo diplomacy”.

Pugh’s aim, he says, is about “trying to raise awareness of climate change”. But he admits: “We are so far past that. If you are not aware of climate change you’re either an ostrich or an Australian politician.”

The kilometre swim he is about to do in an Antarctic area which holds the record for the lowest temperatures on Earth – and in just his Speedos – is all about calling on world leaders to have their own courage.

One of the reasons Pugh chose Lewis as his base for training was to send out a political message. “It was because our futures will be determined in Glasgow, at the COP26 UN conference on climate change,” he says. “And I don’t say that lightly. We can’t kick the can down the road any longer. COP25 in Madrid was a bitter disappointment. All roads now lead to Glasgow.

“The UK Government is going to have to do some very heavy lifting. They must use all their diplomatic effort to ensure all 196 nations commit to ensuring we take urgent action. We have to do everything we can now to fix the problem. And if we don’t the scenes we are seeing now in Australia are going to be common.”

He also chose it because the Outer Hebrides offered the right water conditions. “We felt that these were the very best we could find, which would not be as radical as Antarctica, but would prepare me for Antarctica. We were looking for rough, wild seas and very strong winds.” Lewis offered not only seas of 7C, but lochs at 4C.

These conditions are, of course, in no way as extreme as in Antarctica. “There the water will be zero degrees,” he points out. “The air temperature will probably be -30C. It’s terrifying. East Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth.

“I’m also 50 now and the science is very clear. The older you get, the less tolerant you get to cold water. But I’m so determined to get Antarctica protected. My determination is stronger than the indifference of any political leader.”

Pugh has swum in water that is colder, when, for example, he took on a 350-metre stretch of the Ross Sea where the water was -1.7C and the air was -37C. He recalls: “You pull your arm out of water at -1.7C and it’s dropping then to -37C so you want to put it back in to warm it back up.”

His first major sub-zero swim was across the North Pole in 2007. “In those days, many political leaders were denying what was happening in the Arctic and I’d been visiting it for a number of years,” he recalls. “I’d seen the sea ice melting.”

The salt water at the North Pole is also -1.7C. “Water is an interesting substance,” he says. “Between 0C and 100C it’s a liquid. Below zero it’s a solid. There are certain tipping points at which you don’t know what’s going to happen, and they have a profound impact on the human body.

“I remember standing at the Arctic on the sea ice. I’m about about to jump into the water and it’s completely black, and I’m realising that if things go wrong now I won’t be alive in a few minutes.”

He still finds it terrifying, even now after all the cold-water swims he has done.

In 2018, Pugh swam the 348-mile length of the English Channel in 49 days. “My aim was to get the British Government to understand how important it was to protect our waters from industrial fishing, drilling and other processes,” he says.

Of the waters around the UK, he points out: “Only seven square kilometres are protected.”

The swim was unrelenting,” says Pugh. “I wanted the Government to commit to protecting 30% by 2030, and finally, at the end, Michael Gove came down to the beach and the UK Government committed. But I wish they would have done that before I started the swim because it was hard.”

However, this Antarctic swim will have a different intensity. “You know you’re on the edge of life and death,” he says.

Pugh, who was born in the UK and lives in Cape Town, does what he does in spite of the risk because he has what he describes as “purpose”. For him, there was no damascene moment, just a growing awareness built over his career. “Thirty-three years is a very long career for a sport,” he says. “But in terms of the life of planet Earth it’s but a nanosecond – and in that time I’ve seen massive changes.”

The biggest changes, he says, have been in the Arctic and the Antarctic. “It’s been seeing the melting of the sea ice in the Arctic and also the rise in water temperature. When I did my first swim in the Arctic, in the island of Spitsbergen, the water was 3C in August. I went back there two years ago. The water was 10C.

Pugh wants not only to highlight this warming, but to negotiate the creation of a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica.

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“The swims take 20% of my time. It’s the negotiations afterwards which are 80% of the work. We negotiated an MPA in the Ross Sea in 2016. It’s the biggest protected area in the world, 1.5 million square kilometres.

“We’re now trying to build another three. That involves shuttling backwards and forwards to Moscow, to Beijing, other nations. The swim is not over until the MPAs are set up and working. This could be a four-year campaign.”

He challenges us all to look at what we ourselves are doing. “We have to ask ourselves one simple question,” he says. “Whether you are a government, a business, or a normal person … is your response to the climate emergency adequate?”

Talk to Pugh and you get a different sense of what a personal adequate response might be. For him, it’s taking his own body to its limits, risking death. “I have no desire to die,” he says. “I do these swims because I love life, and not just human life, all life. I don’t know what else I can do now to draw the world’s attention to what is happening.

“I’ve been swimming with this message for over 15 years. I don’t know what else I can do to shake the lapels of world leaders and get them to understand we have no more time. Time has run out.”

Pugh extols the pleasures of his Lewis camp. One of these was the unexpected community of swimmers he found there. “We found a whole community of local swimmers on the Isle of Lewis, which the swimming community in the world didn’t know about – and they were amazing. Every day it would be myself and Max Holloway, Stacey Holloway [who run guide and coach company WayOutside Ltd] and this guy Colin Macleod.

“Colin would rope in every local and on some days we would have more people. One day Ben Fogle visited and we had 70.”

“On the Isle of Lewis it gets light at 9.30am and dark by 3.30pm,” he says. “Imagine you get up at 9.30 and now you’re going to jump into a freezing loch. That’s not easy. But I can tell you something – it’s easy when you’ve got 20 locals jumping in with you.”

On the day of the 90mph winds, Pugh didn’t swim alone. His three training companions jumped into the water with him. “They all came in with me. And I looked at them as I was doing this, swimming in these atrocious conditions.

“I was swallowing a lot of water, so I just did 25 minutes. I looked at them and thought, ‘Where else on Earth would you find these type of people? They are beautiful people’.”