Lewis Pugh's life mission is to live a life on the ocean waves

Lewis Pugh has made it his life's work to swim in the world's coldest waters to draw attention to the frightening fact that they are getting warmer

28 October 2018 - 00:20 By CLAIRE KEETON

Swimming past a polar bear lying peacefully on a grassy bank in the Arctic circle, extreme swimmer Lewis Pugh felt respect, he says. Not fear.
"I have seen big polar bears, small polar bears, fat ones and hungry ones," says Pugh, the only man to do long-distance swims in the Arctic, the Antarctic and in a glacial lake on Mount Everest.
"The Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic call the polar bear 'the animal worthy of respect' and that's how I felt."
A blue and white porcelain polar bear dominates the desk of his study in Noordhoek, Cape Town.
Nicknamed the Human Polar Bear for his feats in near-frozen waters, Pugh has an angular face not unlike that of the handsome predator.
Most people would die within minutes if immersed in water that cold, but Pugh has swum one kilometre in the polar regions in only a Speedo, cap and goggles, taking from 17 to 23 minutes to finish.
Sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes, who accompanied Pugh on his expeditions, says: "His temperature did fall during these swims but because it started at 1°C higher than his usual temperature, it gained him about 10 minutes extra time in the water, before we would become concerned about his risk of losing consciousness."
Pugh has an exceptional ability to raise his core body temperature prior to a death-defying swim.
He lives between London and Cape Town and, when a big swim is coming up, trains day and sometimes night in False Bay, despite its concentration of great white sharks.
"If I don't have the courage to swim in False Bay at night, I would never be able to swim with polar bears in the Arctic, or leopard seals and orcas in the Antarctic," he says. "Courage is like a muscle, it needs to be exercised."
Even out of the water Pugh commands attention, rallying world leaders and the public behind him as the UN Patron of the Oceans. His mission: to protect 30% of the world's oceans by 2030.
He's like a Shakespearean actor, delivering his lines with compelling passion. A tall man, he gestures or pauses to make a point, turning his study into a stage. Twisting down to unfurl "charts", he shows where he last swam or the marine biodiversity hot spots he wants to protect.
In 15 years of campaigning, Pugh's hair has turned from black to wolfish grey and, barefoot and kitted out in navy blue shorts and T-shirt, he's looks neither very lean nor fattened up, such as he needs to be when preparing for icy swims.
"People think the swims look easy but my life can be right on the edge. I must be focused. I can't afford to fail or I die," says Pugh, who has done pioneering swims in every ocean of the world.
Only three times has he had to quit, and two years ago he had major back surgery, which slowed him down. When he's relaxing, he will go out to sea on a surfski.
"I love swimming in the ocean but I don't love the cold. These swims are a way of attracting attention and getting results," says the insomniac Pugh, whose mantra is "no message, no swim".
From July to August he swam the length of the 528km English Channel, the equivalent of 16 crossings back to back, through storms and jellyfish stinging his face and groin. "I have an excellent team and we got the mix on the boat just right," says Pugh, whose wife Antoinette joined the eight-member team midway through the 49-day expedition.
The UK secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, met Pugh on Dover beach at the end of his "Long Swim", describing the former maritime lawyer as a "brilliant champion for marine coastal zones".
Pugh's commitment was rewarded. The UK government has promised to support the target of making 30% of the oceans protected by 2030, making it the first G7 nation to lead the way.
Pugh recently addressed the British prime minister and Conservative and Labour party conferences about ocean protection. He spent two weeks preparing the 10-minute speech.
"You only get one chance," he says, gazing across the wetland beyond his study door.
In December, all nations will meet in Egypt to set the 2030 target. Only 4% of the oceans are protected now, despite the 2020 target of 10%.
Pollution, particularly plastics, overfishing and global warming, are huge threats to the ocean and the planet, says Pugh.
Putting a dinner plate on top of a map of the Arctic circle, he demonstrates the harm being wreaked. "This is sea ice. When I was a kid this is what it was like," he says. When he swam there about 30 years later, the ice had shrunk to the equivalent of a side plate.
"Then we were sailing through leads [cracks] in the multi-year sea ice which went to the top of this roof," he says, sweeping his arm upwards. "Scientists are predicting that within 12 years, in the summer months the Arctic will be largely free of sea ice. This year for the first time ever a container ship sailed straight across it."
In 2005, the Arctic Ocean was 3°C when Pugh did his first northerly swim, on the edge of the ice pack off Norway. When he swam there last year it was 10°C, not much colder than the sea off Cape Town's Clifton beach.
The gorgeous white beach of Plymouth in the UK, where Pugh spent his early childhood, has become littered with plastic pollution in his lifetime.
"It's like we hoovered up the fish and dropped in plastic," he says, urging governments to ban single-use plastics, stirrers and ear buds immediately.
The health of the environment is the "defining issue of this generation", he says. Not Brexit, or Trump, or Syria, or Zuma.
"We are in the era of big consequences. When the ice melts in the north, people feel it. We are not moving quickly enough."
His lobbying and negotiations with world leaders contributed to the 2016 decision by 24 countries and the EU to declare the Ross Sea, in the Antarctic, a marine protected area. At 1.55-million square kilometres, the equivalent of 101 Serengetis, this is the world's largest protected area on land or in the sea.
Now Pugh hopes to get the UK to declare marine protected areas for all its overseas territories, which include biodiversity hot spots such as South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands.
"Nearly a year ago I went to swim in South Georgia. It was like sailing into a cold Serengeti. All over the beaches were emperor penguins and huge elephant seals, some clashing; in the ocean were humpback whales with their mouths full of krill. Leopard seals and fur seals."
Pugh's love for the environment started while spending time with his parents in national parks such as Kruger, Addo, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Table Mountain. They moved to SA when he was 10 years old.
"It should be the right of any child, but many South African children have never been in a national park," he says.
His parents - his father a surgeon in the navy and his mother a nurse - were an inspiration to him, and Pugh served in the UK's Special Air Service.
Lifting a heavy brass bust of his father, he says: "My daddy was born in 1920. I still miss him and my mother every day."
Florence Nightingale, Sir Edmund Hillary - Pugh has been called the Edmund Hillary of swimming - Jane Goodall and a former president of Costa Rica, José María Figueres Olsen, are also heroes of his.
His father, who collected more than 5,000 historical porcelain figurines in his lifetime, sparked Pugh's fascination with history and the world.
SA will be hit very hard by climate change, says Pugh, listing rising temperatures, a downgrade in the country's strategic importance (when ships no longer depend on the Cape coast or Suez Canal to go east or west) and an influx of climate refugees as among threats it faces.
His sense of urgency means he is ready to leap into action at a moment's notice. Pointing to the dozen clear-sided crates in his study, he explains that they hold caps, goggles and so on.
"I could be packed and ready to go in 10 minutes if I get a call right now to get onto a plane to the Antarctic or the Arctic."..

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