Lewis Pugh: "You won't win every battle. You have to be prepared to stand up and keep fighting". Interview with the first United Nations Patron of the Oceans

X-SWIMMERS, meet Lewis Pugh — the first United Nations Patron of the Oceans, who draws attention to vulnerable ecosystems by swimming in them. He was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, he swam across the North Pole, on Everest and the length of the English Channel. Today we will ask him how he realises his amazing projects!

— Lewis, it’s hard to imagine what you are doing and the first question that I always wanted to ask is why do you do what you do? What pushes you to challenge your limits again and again?

— I love swimming! I’ve been swimming now for 35 years and swimming has taken me to some of the most beautiful parts of the world. I hope to swim until my last day on earth. But now I use swimming to carry a message about the health of our planet and so I swim specifically now to talk about what we can do to help to protect our planet. So if there’s no message there’s no swim. It’s that simple now.

— Just to love swimming is not enough to do such crazy challenges that you swim in such horrible conditions! Very few normal people could repeat it!

— You say “crazy challenges” but I think I’m normal! I think the rest of the world is going crazy. When you go high up into the Arctic or you go down to Antarctica or you go to some other places and see the way they have changed in such a short period of time — to not do anything — those are the people who are crazy.

But yes, these swims are extreme. When you swim across the North Pole, the conditions are unimaginable and even worse when you go down to Antarctica. When I swam across the North Pole the water was — 1.7 degrees centigrade. A lot of people have swam at zero degrees or a little bit warmer than 0 degrees, but when you go down below 0, things change. You think “OK what’s the difference between 0 and minus 1.7?”. It’s huge! It’s a difference between climbing a huge mountain and climbing K2 in winter — that’s how big it is. When I swam down in the Ross sea in Antarctica, the water was minus 1.7 again but the air temperature was minus 27 — that type of conditions when you pull your hand out the water the wind is so extreme!

I remember asking my wife to get in the small boat and go along where I was going to swim and make sure that there were no animals in the water. A wave hit the side of the boat and came up as ice — it was so cold that water turned to ice! Those conditions are the most extreme, most dangerous, most frightening I’ve ever swam in.

— How do you choose the new destinations? How do you choose the places to swim next?

— I start with the message. What is the message I’m trying to get across and how can I then find a swim to carry the message. Let me give you an example of the Ross Sea. Antarctica is an amazing place that is right on the edge now of all the changes which are occurring in the world because of climate change and overfishing. And it’s the last true wilderness area left on this Earth. Under international law, 25 countries govern Antarctica and they all wanted to protect it except Russia and China. So I thought to myself “how can I carry a message to Moscow about something which is happening 15 000 kilometers away down in the southern hemisphere?”. Everybody in Russia has heard about Slava Fetisov — a great ice hockey legend! He said “Go and swim in the Ross Sea, get the imagery, come to Russia and I will take you to meet the politicians”. So that’s what I did and the footage was amazing: I went there and two years later China signed the deal and then shortly afterwards Russia agreed to it. Nothing gave me greater joy! You’ve got to be creative and always think about interesting places to swim

— You can make it politics being no politician! You prove that someone can make a big change in the big world being just a single person!

— Yes, for me this is about justice between ourselves and the animal kingdom. The Secretary General of the United Nations appointed me as the United Nations Patron of the Oceans. He said: “Lewis, all I want you to do is to be a voice for the ocean! I want you to be a voice for all the magnificent animals that live in our oceans because they don’t sit in parliaments!”. That’s what I try to do. You can’t go to Moscow and bully President Putin into protecting an area. You have to go to this place and show how magnificent it is and then share with him how important it is to protect and explain why it’s also in Russia’s national interest to protect the place.

— Great! Could you figure out shortly what your message is? Just in one phrase if it’s possible, please.

— My message to the world is very, very simple — our planet is changing. It’s changing incredibly quickly and I want people to wake up every single morning and ask themselves how I can help to protect and save this beautiful planet. I want not only individuals like you and me but I want countries to think about it. I want businesses to think about it. I want everybody to think about it .

— Sounds great! Can you please give some advice to us? X-WATERS, I guess, contains nearly 20 000 swimmers and we have some media coverage, we have some resources to do something! What can X-WATERS do for the oceans to help to save our planet?

— The people who use the ocean (I’m talking about swimmers, kayakers, sailors, fishermen) on a daily basis have to become a voice for the ocean. We need to be custodians, we need to be guardians of the ocean, we should protect the oceans to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy it the way that we enjoy it. All of us can do very simple things which together collectively not only protect the beautiful rivers and lakes and waters but also make a big impact on the world. All the problems can’t be solved by one nation, they can’t be solved by one group of people, they require everybody to work together. We cannot protect the planet without Russia. We need Russian leadership and leadership can start from the bottom, with ordinary people.

— It doesn’t look so easy, but it’s not just a single step, it’s like a process. It’s a way which maybe we can have to change our habits, our everyday behavior.

— I remember listening to Bill Gates speaking a few days ago about climate change in a very meaningful way. He said that this is the biggest problem which mankind has ever faced. It’s complex so all these things are interrelated and interlinked but it can be solved. I’m sure he’s right on that!

— Lewis, do you do something special in your everyday life to save the ocean?

— My whole life is about trying to protect the oceans. I’ve got a very small car, I eat very little meat, I don’t eat fish. The reason why I don’t want any fish is that the oceans are so badly overfished. I travel very little now, but I tried to get my message out on the internet giving talks like this. And I think that’s the best thing I can do being an advocate for the oceans

— Could we talk a little bit about your swimming preparation? You did a lot of swims in various specific conditions. For example at Everest it was like 5,200 meters above the sea. How did you adopt? It’s hard just to move not to swim! How did you prepare for it?

— I went to South America into the Andes and spent three weeks there training at very, very high altitude. Then I went to Mount Everest and we walked up very very slowly so we had a lot of adaptation. But here’s the interesting thing — I tried to do the swim across the lake and the first time I tried it, I thought I was gonna drown: I just couldn’t breathe, I was gasping for air. So we had to completely change the way I was swimming. The leader of the expedition told me: “you cannot bully Mount Everest, you’ve got to swim with real humility”. It’s very very different climbing up Everest and swimming on Everest. When you’re climbing you can stop, if you’re swimming and you stop, you’re going to get cold very quickly (the water in the lake was 2 degrees centigrade). There’s this tension where you’ve got to swim slowly, so you preserve the oxygen, but you’ve got to swim fast enough that you are still able to maintain enough heat. So I swam the kilometer and it took me around about 23 minutes to complete and I was frozen!

— How did you recover after it?

There was an enormous team of Nepalese sherpas and they carried a heating device as soon as I got out the water into a tent. They heated up the tent and after about 15-20 minutes that tent was boiling hot and that’s the way I recovered.

— Who is your team? Is it the same team on all the challenges or you just collect each time the new one?

— I collect each time a new team and I’m looking for specific skills. For example you need a doctor, a cameraman, a videographer, you need somebody who’s got a kayak next to you or somebody who’s going to drive a boat. Most importantly I’m looking for a type of personality, for people who have passion. I don’t want to have daydreamers, pessimistic and cynical people who look at everything and everything is gray. I look for people who are realistic optimists who say “let’s give this a good go because the reason why we’re doing it is really important”. Lastly I look for an unrelenting pursuit of excellence. Everything we do in the team we do to the very very best of our ability because our lives depend upon it. The whole team I’m preparing now for a very big expedition will be about 10 people. When I did the North Pole swim the team was enormous — 29 people!

— May I ask you who pays bills for such expeditions?

— These swims are incredibly expensive and normally the money comes from three sources. Probably about 40% of the expenses are paid by commercial sponsors. I look for commercial sponsors, for example Speedo sponsors me. Then there are some foundations, environmental organizations who want to share my message about protecting the oceans. They probably pay about 40%. The other 20% I end up paying. I’ve never ever in 35 years been able to cover all my expenses because these expeditions are incredibly expensive.

— But you are not a professional swimmer. Do you have a regular job?

— My life is environmental work. So I started out as a maritime lawyer so every single day I’m doing this environmental campaigning. To earn enough money to be able to do it I do speeches for big multinational companies about leadership or teamwork or courage. They pay me and that covers myself and my family`expenses.

— Your training program is different for each challenge because of different conditions, isn’t it? Do you have some regular training program which you normally do every week?

— This is a very interesting point. I’ve just turned 50 and there’s still so many swims which I want to do. I meet some swimmers who have retired by the time they’re 25. They worked incredibly hard from the ages of 6 to 25, they swam in the Olympic Games, but by 25 they’re completely burnt out. So I’m either training for a big swim or I’m not training. And when I’m not training I do kayaking, hiking, cycling. I swim just a little bit, maybe once or twice a week — just enough that I still know what it’s like. I think that if i were to constantly train year round completely I wouldn’t be able to have the longevity which i’m looking for.

— Do you permanently check your time and distance during a swim?

— Yes, I want to know exactly how fast I’m swimming, how far I’ve gone and how far I’ve still got to go. I’m constantly making those calculations. I did the first swim along the English Channel. 528 kilometers is a long way, every day I swim 10 kilometers and during those swims I want to know what speed I am swimming at, am I in a current? I want this information real time so people are writing it up on a board. The English Channel has one of the strongest tides in the world so you’ve got to find the right current.

— What makes you special? What’s your superpower?

— I suppose I’m very focused. I’ve dedicated my life trying to be a voice for the world’s oceans. The second point is that I like to be creative. I like to open up a map of the world and start thinking where I can swim and come up with a really good idea which can get politicians to think. I hope I’m resilient. When things go wrong and you fail, but then stand up again. There’s been a number of swims which I’ve attempted but I failed, I went back and tried them a second time. I think that’s a really important thing. Because you won’t win every battle you will not win every battle and if you lose a battle you have to be prepared to stand up and keep fighting.

Last year under COVID-19 it was incredibly difficult. Exactly this time last year myself and Slava Fetisov had a long meeting with Sergey Ivanov where we were talking about protecting the eastern part of Antarctica. Then I returned to South Africa and then there was a lockdown, and my mother died and then the negotiations with the Russian government and the Chinese government were not successful. I was in a very dark space and saw no hope on the horizon. And then Slava called me up and said that the world needs more defenders and we will not stop until this place is protected. When I heard these words from Slava I stood up and I said “Right I need to get back and keep working again. That’s what my mother would have wanted and that’s what the world needs.”

— Could you say a couple of thoughts about your family? Do they share your passion?

— They’re very supportive. They don’t push me, they don’t stop me, but they encourage me. I don’t think I could do this if I had a family who were trying to hold me back. You know I love the ocean, I feel at home in the ocean and I hope that I spend the rest of my life in the oceans. To do that you need a supportive family.

— You are a great speaker! We love to listen to your stories!

— If you go all the way back to the beginning of time that’s how we connected it’s by telling stories. Wherever you will go, all of us believe in justice and equality. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t want to protect the environment. But it’s about showing people how to do that. I think storytelling is the best way.

— Do you believe that politicians are frank and honest to respond to your environmental call?

— What I’ve learned now from being the United Nations Patron for Oceans is that the leaders of the world that I have met want to protect the environment but often they are facing lots of different issues and have to balance things out and sometimes the environment is not on the top of his agenda. My responsibility is to constantly be a voice. Russia is so big that the problems can be diluted over the whole country. If you pollute the River Thames, everybody’s gonna know about it because it goes through London. But if you pollute a small part of Russia in Siberia sometimes people don’t even know about it.

The interesting thing about Russian people is their love for wilderness areas. That’s really important! You realize “yeah, I am a part of this world! I need to respect those things”. If our children have not been into wilderness areas how can we expect them to care for it and make the right decisions.

— It was a strong culture to go outside especially in Soviet times. Now it’s less but still there are a lot of people who remember this. We were a closed country and the only possibility to travel was to travel inside the country.

— It’s so important! We need to put the computers and telephones down, we need to take our children out into the wilderness areas. They must walk in the forest, they must climb the mountains, they must swim in rivers. That is good for the soul and it’s good for your mind and for mental health as much as for physical health.

— Who created the term SPEEDO diplomacy? Was it you or it was a genius marketing move far below SPEEDO brand?

— I don’t think it was marketing. I think the first person to talk about that was a Russian journalist who was talking about me swimming down in the Ross Sea and then coming to meet Ivanov and Shoigu about protecting the environment. It’s good for SPEEDO — on the front page of the newspaper are the SPEEDO diplomats. But for me SPEEDO diplomacy is about us working together. It’s about the power of ordinary people to make changes. I quite like the term.

— Have you probably met dangerous sea animals? How do you work with it, how do you manage it?

— In order to talk about that I need to talk about courage. I live in Cape Town and whenever I go for a swim here there are a lot of animals. I’m not talking about soft animals, I’m talking about proper great white sharks. On the beach where I train every day in the past ten years we’ve had three shark attacks. One of the attacks was very visible. There’s a pathway next to this beach and there was a lady who every single day used to swim along this pathway. We have shark guards so these are people with binoculars and they’re looking out for sharks. One day they saw a shark and they pulled everybody out and then the next morning this old lady went for a swim and they said “no! there was a shark seen here yesterday”. The old lady was in her 80s and and she said “I’ve swim every single day here .I will always swim”. She started swimming backstroke along the side of this bay right next to the pathway. Some people were walking by and they saw the shark literally come towards her and they screamed at her, but she swam backstroke literally into the mouth. You know if you’ve seen a shark attack you don’t want to go into the water. Courage is a muscle. If you’re not exercising that muscle on a regular basis when you get to my age you’ll get very soft.

You have to keep pushing yourself into that danger zone but you need to be careful. When I swim out at sea I’ve got a boat next to me and I do everything I can to make sure that there’s as much safety as possible. I went down to Antarctica recently to do this swim down the river. I’ll never ever forget this swim because a little bit further down this river there is literally a hole and the water goes straight the way down that hole. It drops around about 100 meters straight and you will get sucked down it and these cliffs over here are actually very very sharp. I decided to swim 250 strokes up the river and then come down. To my right is ice, to my left is ice, above my head is a blue sky and I look down this river and it’s completely blue. I cannot see my team and waiting for me at the other end is Slava Fetisov. He’s got one job — he’s got to catch me as so he’s got a rope and he’s going to throw that across the river. The nearest help is a Russian scientific station which is about 50 kilometers away so that’s no help at all if you get yourself into trouble. I start swimming back 50, 100, 150, and then start doubting yourself. But I look up and on the corner of the river and I see Slava waiting for me with this rope, I grab it, it pulls me in and up onto the side. Courage is also contagious — when you surround yourself by courageous people you yourself can be courageous. I knew there was no way that Slava was not going to catch me — I trust him 100%. He’s not a swimmer, but I know, he’s going to protect me!

— It’s great to have reliable people around you. It was an amazing conversation! Thank you so much! I believe it will be inspiring for all our swimmers and will help to provide your message. We will try to help and add our voices to yours.

— Thank you so much for taking the time, thank you for the questions! But as I said earlier I come to Russia three four times a year, soon I will come back to start the discussions with the Russian government again. I’ve swam in Franz Josef Land and in Lake Baikal — these are two amazing places. I remember being in Franz Josef Land and seeing these big polar bears and then swimming in the Lake Baikal where the water is so fresh. I want to come back to Russia and I want to do some swims in Russia with Russians.

— We wish you to keep your resilience! You give us an example that one single person can do big changes even on a government level! Good luck in your great way!

One swimmer started reading these articles and couldn’t stop…
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