The Story Behind Lewis Pugh’s Activism To Protect Antarctica

Extreme swimmer Lewis Pugh is planning his next conquest, to lobby for a massive marine protected area surrounding Antarctica. Facing enormous threats from melting sea ice and industrial fishing, the region is under severe threat. Mallika Naguran speaks to the ocean advocate on his activism, advocacy and next mission—Antarctica2020.

SINGAPORE, 6 September 2019. “We are losing this war in the environment,” said Lewis Pugh in a dire warning at the end of a motivational lecture to business folks and academics - at a colder than usual air-conditioned conference. Outside, the day temperature in unusually warmer Singapore crept over 33°C.  

Lewis Pugh: “Think about how you can protect the planet.”

Lewis Pugh: “Think about how you can protect the planet.”

It’s an interesting choice of word – “war”.  Pugh, an ex-military, was born in South Africa. He served in the British Special Air Service before going on to read law and thereafter becoming an ocean advocate. 

At the Singapore Management Festival lecture on 6 September 2019, Pugh went on to say that everything we do either destroys or protects the environment. So it is up to the individual to choose his path. A few people shifted in their seats. Somebody coughed. He urged business leaders to think of the future of their children and grandchildren. “I ask you, think about how you can protect the planet,” he concluded.

I later met Lewis Pugh for an interview, and dived into his campaigning mindset. What makes him do what he does, and how does he do it so well? What next?

Lewis Pugh the Activist

When he turns 50 this December, Pugh could probably sit back with a glass of South African sparkling wine in his London home reflecting on his life’s journey. Since the age of 17, Pugh has taken to water like a fish, and has stayed that way. He swam all ancient Seven Seas in 2014, from the Mediterranean to the Arabian, to flag the need for marine protected areas, or MPAs, in surrounding nations. He was the first person to achieve such a feat.  

Lewis Pugh sends out a personal message to world leaders through a bold and risky act of swimming in icy waters, and to campaign for marine protected areas.

Lewis Pugh sends out a personal message to world leaders through a bold and risky act of swimming in icy waters, and to campaign for marine protected areas.

And all he wears is his swimming trunks and cap—Speedo diplomacy indeed! 

He has swum long distance in waters such as the Antarctic, the North Pole and the Himalayas (a glacial lake due to melted ice – this wasn’t there when our grandparents were little!). 

For his outstanding activism and relentless campaigning for ocean conservation, the United Nations appointed him Patron of the Oceans in 2013.

He swims as a way of demonstrating his response to climate change and environmental issues. His campaigns aim to raise awareness of not just the beauty of marine life but also the sensitivity of eco-systems. His business: lobbying for MPAs to help conserve the seas and oceans.

Warmer air temperature, melting ice, over fishing, plastic pollution, drilling for oil and gas are near and present dangers that must be mitigated through MPAs in areas surrounding the Antarctica. That’s the reason for Lewis Pugh and friends campaigning through the Antarctica2020 network.

Warmer air temperature, melting ice, over fishing, plastic pollution, drilling for oil and gas are near and present dangers that must be mitigated through MPAs in areas surrounding the Antarctica. That’s the reason for Lewis Pugh and friends campaigning through the Antarctica2020 network.

Concerned with the Antarctica coming under threat from fishing, pollution and climate change, Pugh in 2015 began the formidable task of swimming— yes in his Speedo again — in chilling conditions to seek legal protection of the Ross Sea.

Ross Sea for Protection

The expedition was a series of five icy swims, through from UNESCO World Heritage Campbell Island off New Zealand to the volcanic Peter I Island (See map). All in freezing water.

There’s nothing more powerful than a made up mind.
— Lewis Pugh

Along with the swims, Pugh creates ripples in discussions worldwide on the need to protect the local wildlife. At Campbell Island, there’s the Southern Royal Albatrosses and three species of penguins — the Eastern Rockhoppers, Erect-Crested and Yellow-Eyed Penguins. 

Peter I Island is home to three seal species (Crab-eater, Southern-elephant, and the Leopard Seal). It is also a breeding ground for the southern fulmars. The Adélie and Chinstrap penguins pop by there for a feed and rest. (More wildlife information of the Ross Sea can be viewed here.)

Lewis Pugh plans to swim the supraglacial lakes of the Antarctica in 2020 to lobby for greater protection there.

Lewis Pugh plans to swim the supraglacial lakes of the Antarctica in 2020 to lobby for greater protection there.

As the Ross Sea is seen as the last bastion of thriving ocean biodiversity, it needs protection, primarily from fishing vessels and the changes brought about by climate impacts. Melting sea ice in the Polar Regions due to warming air and water is altering the marine ecosystem balance. Krill numbers in the Antarctic has been found to be dwindling, and this affects the food chain.

An MPA is important because it can help with the regeneration of marine ecosystems. A network of MPAs worldwide, according to scientists, can also help build resilience in marine ecosystems and mitigate climate change impacts. The cold Polar Regions exist for another purpose — to keep the Earth cool, so melting ice is bad news for humans too.

Penguins are pretty, but they are also part of an ecosystem that is vital for ocean survival. And they need our protection, says Lewis Pugh.

Penguins are pretty, but they are also part of an ecosystem that is vital for ocean survival. And they need our protection, says Lewis Pugh.

The organisation responsible for creating an MPA is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), chaired by Russia, and established in December 2017.  The proposed Ross Sea MPA is huge, at 1.34 million km2 and is bigger than the UK, Germany and France put together. However, for years, a lack of consensus had held back the motion to establish an MPA in the Ross Sea (China and Russia opposed the move).

We need to learn how to listen to the dialogue on the other side.
— Lewis Pugh on Activism

Jointly led by New Zealand and the United States, the MPA requires agreement of all 25 members of the CCAMLR. The agreement seeks to balance marine protection, sustainable fishing and science interests.

Pugh planned to approach this deadlock strategically and persuade Russia to pave the way in leading the conservation effort. As in warfare planning, it starts with finding a weakness or a common ground. Pugh began sharing about his swim in skin numbing water condition that only cold loving Russians could relate to!

Lewis Pugh’s team ensures his life isn’t at risk after a death defying swim at The Bay of Whales, Antarctica.

Lewis Pugh’s team ensures his life isn’t at risk after a death defying swim at The Bay of Whales, Antarctica.

It wasn’t easy though. The swim series in icy cold temperature was challenging, particularly the most southerly swim at the Bay of Whales, Antarctica. The water measured minus 1°C and air temperature with wind chill minus 37°C.

“When I raised my hands during the strokes, the sea water froze midair – that’s how cold it was,” he remarked, adding that he couldn’t wait for his hands to be back in the water again during the swim. Requiring tremendous will and mind power to overcome all odds including fear, Pugh completed the 330metre swim… in five minutes.

“There’s nothing more powerful than a made up mind,” he said. 

The Strategy in Activism

Along with his personal demonstration by achieving this incredible feat, he made frequent trips to speak to policy makers in Moscow, London and Washington about the need for an MPA, very much at his own expense. He also delivered talks with the help of Viacheslav Alexandrovich “Slava” Fetisov, a sports celebrity and former Russian Minister of Sport, also an ocean advocate.  And this took years.

Although the Ross Sea has come under marine protection, some areas are still open to commercial fishing and fishing for krill research. Antarctica 2020 calls for bigger areas surrounding Antarctica to come under MPAs.

Although the Ross Sea has come under marine protection, some areas are still open to commercial fishing and fishing for krill research. Antarctica 2020 calls for bigger areas surrounding Antarctica to come under MPAs.

In 2016, there was a breakthrough. All 25 members of the Commission eventually supported the establishment of the Ross Sea MPA totalling 1.55 million km2, in no small way thanks to the agreement of Russia, following Pugh’s campaign.

However, the MPA was not as extensive as campaigned for, so as to give some room for fishing. Commercial fishing is not allowed in only 72% of the MPA (general protection zone of 1.12 million km2) but a krill research zone allows controlled research fishing for krill, for decades.

Nonetheless, the MPA comes into force on 1 December 2019. Commenting on the breakthrough, Pugh maintains that the way forward in any activism is to take a positive approach in understanding the opposition’s standpoint. “We need to learn how to listen to the dialogue on the other side,” said Pugh.

But Pugh is done with celebrating. There’s still another task ahead.

Antarctica2020 Rallies for Greater Action

Together with influencers from sports, politics, science, media and business, Pugh is now calling out for greater ocean protection. He is doing this through a network he formed along with oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Slava Fetisov and others, called Antarctica2020.  

“Scientists say that at least 30% of the oceans needs to be conserved through MPAs to allow ocean regeneration, and this is where we are headed,” Pugh told me.

Imagine if we lost the Colossus Squid to extinction. The massive squid living 2km deep in the Antarctica can grow up to 14 metres, feeds on the toothfish that’s being overfished and in turn is lunch for sperm whales.  Act for Antarctica2020 now.

Imagine if we lost the Colossus Squid to extinction. The massive squid living 2km deep in the Antarctica can grow up to 14 metres, feeds on the toothfish that’s being overfished and in turn is lunch for sperm whales. Act for Antarctica2020 now.

The goal is to rally support from all quarters through multilateral cooperation and sustained diplomacy to establish a network of large-scale MPAs of more than 7 million km2 in the Southern Ocean by the end of next year. This would cover the region of East Antarctic, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula.

“This protection would safeguard Antarctica’s precious marine life, build global resilience to the effects of climate change and create an environmental legacy that will benefit humanity for generations,” says the Antarctica2020 website. 

To get there, Pugh now intends to swim the supraglacial lakes of the Antarctica with a simple message: climate change is melting the ice of the southern polar region faster than usual. It is time to do something.

And people are listening to what Pugh is saying, and doing. “Lewis Pugh doesn’t tell us what to do, he shows us what can be done,” said Bill Clinton. 

Photography courtesy of Lewis Pugh and team

With thanks to the SIM Professional Development for facilitating this interview at the fifth annual Singapore Management Festival. The conference targets thought and business leaders to discuss leadership and management topics, and issues that shape the future. https://festival.sim.edu.sg/.