A Cold Dip for Climate Change

PHOTO by Lewis Pugh’s Facebook page
The story of how one extreme swimmer helped Russia and the US reach an agreement

In late October, members of the annual Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, (CCAMLR) reached an agreement regarding the creation of the world’s largest nature reserve in the Ross Sea region. Previous attempts to establish a protected area had failed due to a lack of consensus between Russia and the United States.

The stalemate was finally broken thanks to Lewis Pugh, a British maritime environment advocate and extreme swimmer, appointed a “Patron of the Oceans” by the United Nations Environment Programme. He decided that actions spoke louder than words and spread awareness of Antarctic issues by swimming through its ice-cold waters. In an interview with Lenta.ru Pugh shared his tale of “beating the system” and making the Ross Sea nature reserve a reality.

Lenta.ru: Let’s start from the top: why should there be a natural reserve in the Ross Sea?

Pugh: Because these are some of the most pristine waters left on our planet. They’re virtually untouched by man, but this may soon change. Moreover, the Ross Sea is home to a huge variety of organisms which aren't found anywhere else in the world. For example, 40% of the all the Pygoscelis adeliae penguins, a quarter of the global population of emperor penguins and about half of all Orca whales in the world live here!

The area of the reserve will be 1.5 million square kilometres – that’s about the area of the UK, France, Italy and Germany combined!

What dangers is the Antarctic region facing?

There’s only one danger – human activity which leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide. In turn, this leads to the increased acidity of Antarctic waters, which results in the extinction of local wildlife. The creation of a nature reserve is only a temporary solution. We need to protect the Ross Sea for years to come, so there’s still a lot of work to be done!

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Ideally, the Antarctic should have a network of protected maritime reserves. States should team up and work together to mitigate the effects of climate change and slow the depletion of fish populations. This is why I’m swimming in the Antarctic waters again this December.

Your ice water swims are colloquially called speedo diplomacy. What do you think about that?

My speedos are more powerful than a nuclear bomb! (laughs) But really, this awesome term was coined by journalists while I was swimming through the Ross Sea, hoping to be heard. And it appears it worked. But, of course, diplomacy is much more than just taking a dip in the Antarctic water.

Did you have to travel a lot for this cause?

Oh, absolutely! I went to 24 countries and a few EU member states, hoping to persuade them to create a reserve. I’ve visited a few countries more than once, too. I had to get to the bottom of some deeply-rooted disagreements between nations. People, especially people with power, are unlikely to seek compromise, especially during times of political turbulence. You know, it felt like a lost cause for a while: I wasn’t sure I’d succeed. But now we’ve managed to create the largest natural reserve on Earth!

Are you concerned about Donald Trump? He has quite a skeptical stance towards global warming and other issues…

I’m not afraid of Trump! (laughs) I’m all for a rational discussion. Let’s see what happens and then decide on our course of action or an evaluation of the actions of others. During my travels I’ve never encountered anyone who refused to speak with me. It’s not about my status as a UN maritime ambassador, it’s about a positive attitude. I’ve been both pleased and surprised by that.

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What else did you find surprising?

Russia. It’s the current CCAMLR chair. Russia decided to make sure the move to create a natural reserve was scientifically viable before supporting it. A lot of effort was spent on research, but it yielded results! I’m so glad this had a happy ending. But it’s only the beginning – I’ve found out that Russia plans on continuing its scientific efforts in the Antarctic.

I’ve been to Russia five times in total. I met Slava Fetisov, Sergei Shoigu, Artur Chilingarov and Sergei Ivanov – they really supported my ideas! I’m sure that our cooperation for the benefit of our planet won’t end with the Ross Sea.

Did you have a chance to talk to Russian journalists?

Eventually I learned to communicate with journalists properly. In fact, I’ve built successful relationships with many media outlets, some of whom are Russian. After all, my main objective is to raise awareness of the dangers and threats to our planet. Talking to journalists is one of the most effective ways of doing it. I’ve had contact with Russian journalists and I enjoyed our communication – they asked me really probing questions! I’ve also made some friends at RussiaNew.com – they showed me Russia in all its beauty!

Apart from talking with journalists and politicians, did you get the chance to see some of Russia's sights?

Oh, absolutely! Although the list of landmarks I visited is a bit short, I’ve been to Franz Josef Land and some other places in the Russian Arctic. I was awestruck by Baikal – I took a dip in it too! I’ve also been to Moscow and Sochi, I enjoyed these cities. I’d like to find time to visit St Petersburg and take in some its culture. I dream of going to Wrangel Island and Kamchatka, where I hope to see some polar bears.

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Do you think you’re going to swim while there?

I'm not sure yet: I need to get there first!

Which swim do you remember above all your of others?

I guess it was the one near the North Pole in 2007. Journalists reported the event broadly and everyone saw I was swimming in open water, with no ice. I think that then, people realised how profoundly climate change has affected the Arctic.

I'm always training, preparing my body for the ice-cold water. It’s important to solidly concentrate when you’re swimming in those sorts of conditions. But the important thing is this: I swim to send a message to humanity. It’s my own attempt to right the world and that makes it easier for me to endure.

I just enjoy swimming as a process. I have no fun when I’m running or doing another athletic activity. But cold water, now that’s refreshing. You can’t condition yourself to withstand cold temperatures with training alone – you need to build your character, too.

Interviewed by Dmitry Sarkisov