A Time for Action
I love swimming. But these days, I swim for one reason: to protect our oceans.
When I started long-distance swimming it was all about pioneering swims in new places, and pushing my body to extremes of endurance. How far could I swim, what kind of cold could I endure, and for how long?
I was the first person to complete long-distance swims in every ocean in the world. I pioneered swims in the ancient seven seas. I swam across the North Pole, and broke my own record for the most southernmost swim in the waters around Antarctica.
Every swim was different, and each one brought me into contact with ocean life. I swam in balmy tropical waters over colourful coral reefs with astonishing diversity. I was shadowed by giant turtles and cruised underwater alongside elegant manta rays.
In the teeming waters around Cape Point I saw massive Great White sharks torpedo by. In the Polar Regions, I fell in love with all kinds of penguins. I had close calls with leopard seals, and needed polar bear patrols to guard me from the ice edge while I swam.
I know that I have been unbelievably fortunate to have these experiences. Sadly, in 33 years of swimming I have also seen the oceans change beyond recognition.
In 2018 I swam the entire length of the English Channel. It took me 49 days, and in all that time I saw a few birds, one small pod of dolphins, and one turtle. That was it!
And yet on every beach I visited there was plastic pollution.
Rising temperatures, industrial overfishing, and pollution have all taken their toll on our oceans. Which is why I no longer swim for the personal challenge or glory. I swim to be an advocate for real change, through action to create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in our most vulnerable seas and oceans.
Marine Protected Areas are the best way to allow our oceans to repair and recover. Healthy oceans are more robust at withstanding the challenges of climate change, and they thrive with the kind of life I was accustomed to seeing when I started swimming all those years ago.
To date, my foundation has been instrumental in protecting over 2 million km² of vulnerable ocean – an area larger than Western Europe. We are working to fully protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.
But wishing it won’t make it so. It will happen through real commitment and decisive action.
Action for Oceans
This is why I was delighted to partner with SUSE for my latest expedition to East Antarctica. When we put out the call for funding, they didn’t hesitate. They saw the importance of what we were doing, and committed then and there.
My swim under the Antarctic Ice Sheet was both dazzling and terrifying. East Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. And yet everywhere I looked there was water rushing off glaciers, carving long rivers deep into the ice sheet, or pooling into supra-glacial lakes.
I have seen with my own eyes how the ice is melting, at both poles, at an unprecedented rate.
Serious decisive action is what the world needs right now as we face this climate emergency. SUSE stepped in because they understood that we simply don’t have another 10 years to protect the world’s last true wilderness areas.
I am now on my way to Russia to start discussions that I believe will open the way for an East Antarctica MPA before the year is out.
At the end of this year world leaders will gather for the COP 26 Climate Change summit in Glasgow. My message to those leaders will be unequivocal: We need serious, decisive action. And we need it now. Step up or step aside.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans