Lewis Pugh: Swimming For A Cause

Nov 14, 2017 By Christine, Guest Editor
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On November 7, Lewis Pugh completed a one-kilometer swim in the freezing waters of King Edward Cove, off South Georgia in Antarctica.  He was wearing only his goggles, swim cap and Speedos!

Pugh is an ex-lawyer who is now an advocate for our oceans and seas, working to protect these ecosystems with their large diversity of marine life.  

As part of his campaigns, he swims to draw attention to the issues, even in difficult environments like Antarctica. When asked why he doesn’t wear a wetsuit, Lewis says, “I ask world leaders to do everything they can to protect our oceans. Sometimes the steps they need to take are difficult and unpopular. If I’m asking them to be courageous, I must also be. Swimming in a wetsuit would not send the right message.”

Swimming In Cold Waters

It took Pugh about 19 minutes to complete the one kilometer (0.62 miles) swim in Antarctica where the water averaged about 1.6 degrees Celsius (or 35 degrees Fahrenheit). 

He says that his body can only tolerate about 20 minutes in the freezing waters before it starts shutting down. When he first dives in, the capillaries on the outer part of his body will constrict and this shifts the blood towards his body’s core to help preserve warmth and protect his vital organs. As he swims, his body temperature steadily drops, which in turn causes his coordination and muscle control to drop, slowing him down. When he is done with his swim, his support team rushes him to a hot shower and it takes almost an hour for his body temperature to return to normal.

Doctors and Pugh caution that one must undergo months of training to swim in such cold waters. Even expert swimmers who are unused to freezing water can drown within minutes because of the physical shock experienced by the body. Pugh says he trained for six months prior to this swim.

Bringing Attention To Conservation

The United Kingdom government is reviewing its protection laws in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands waters in Antarctica, which it considers part of its overseas territories. 

Currently, the area is partially protected, only allowing limited fishing. Its remote and inhospitable location has also protected it from large fishing operations.  However, advocates like Lewis Pugh are pushing for it to be fully protected by outlawing all fishing because of its wide variety of marine wildlife.  Over 95% of Antarctic fur seals, 50% of south elephant seals and 25% of the world’s penguins live in this area, along with various species of whales and seabirds.

This is not the first time that Lewis has swam in dangerous conditions. In 2007, he swam one kilometer in the North Pole to draw attention to the melting Arctic ice due to climate change. The water was only 29 degrees Fahrenheit, which was the coldest any human had swum in. In 2015, he swam in the Bay of Whales in Antarctica’s Ross Sea where the water was 30 degrees Fahrenheit as part of his successful campaign to help establish a marine reserve there. 

Lewis Pugh is the only person to have ever completed a long-distance swim in each of the five oceans in the world – Arctic, Atlantic, Southern, Indian and Pacific.

Courtesy Telegraph, National Geographic, NYTimes