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Meet the man who risks his life for healthy seas


In the world of endurance swimming no one is quite like the Human Polar Bear, Lewis Pugh. A British/South African swimmer, Pugh (aged 47) has spent the last 30 years swimming for long periods in freezing water, whilst also redefining what a human being can endure.

He’s swum further north and south than any other endurance swimmer. He swam 1km of a glacial lake cradled by the rugged upper slopes of Mount Everest, hoping to draw attention to the receding glaciers of the Himalayas. He dodged crocodiles in Africa when he crossed Lake Malawi. He’s even entered waters commonly populated by breaching great whites, when he swam around the Cape of Good Hope Africa (one of his crew joined him in the water to decrease the likelihood of him being eaten).

Now, Pugh is ploughing through the icy ribbons of deep black water that edge the Arctic ice pack, close to the island of Spitsbergen, in northern Norway. When many would be looking for furry slippers and a steaming hot chocolate, Pugh has opted instead to head out into the Arctic Ocean, earning his grand title as UN Patron of the Oceans and showing the world what it takes to win the ongoing fight to keep our oceans healthy.


As anyone who saw the recent Netflix documentary Chasing Coral will know, the gradual acidification of the ocean and the constant use of these waters as a dumping ground is having a devastating effect on the environment. Widespread coral bleaching is commonplace, whereby we see the disintegration and discoloration of living tissue, heralding the severe loss of biodiversity currently underway in our oceans. According to current predictions, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Meanwhile, greenhouse emissions are being absorbed by the oceans, which has led to a consistent rise in ocean temperatures this past three decades. Marine life is under threat and miles of weakened ice are breaking loose and floating out to sea as huge rafts – in fact, recently, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke loose from the Antarctic Peninsula. Pugh saw this transformation for himself when he was training for his most recent swim in northern Norway.

The pain is excruciating. I’ll think of dozens of reasons to get out. So I try to focus on the ONE reason to keep on going. (Lewis Pugh)

Having travelled up from Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, where the water was a much cosier 10°C, Pugh and his team chose an open fjord on the coast of Spitsbergen for the first few swims and acclimatisation tests. The water Pugh was cutting through had previously been concealed by a thick glacier in 2005.

When Pugh attempted his main swim, alongside a wall of Arctic sea ice, the water was an unimaginable minus 0.5 degrees Celsius – so cold that the crew decided to tell Pugh it was 2°C to keep him calm in the water. Though the sun was shining against the heavenly azure, the gun-metal water was about to become hell for Pugh. The only reason it hadn’t frozen over was because it was salt water.

Unlikely to ever attempt such a swim again, Pugh dove bravely into the water, came up, steadied his breathing and began to swim. I was in an airport following the live updates and that was painful enough. Just imagine being there in those conditions. At one point the support team noticed Pugh was taking much longer than expected. Every extra second in those conditions is dangerous. The whole time Pugh is in excruciating pain. To maintain focus he must concentrate on a single, salient reason for being there. Then he strains all his strength towards this goal.

In the end, Pugh spent 22 minutes in the water and completed his swim. Disorientated, he was pulled up onto the RIB like a big, frozen fish, thanks to trusty photographer and teammate Kelvin Trautman. At that point Pugh’s limbs were so numb and cold that he had to hold onto Trautman by biting his drysuit with his teeth. Next Pugh was rushed into the wreathing steam of a hot shower, where he stayed seated in a chair, under the warm water, for up to an hour, until his body temperature had returned to a safe level.

For most people, those waters would’ve surely been fatal. Firstly, the cold water causes people  to hyperventilate, upping the pH levels in the blood and reducing blood flow to the brain, causing immediate disorientation.

“Most people would die within a very short time,” said Pugh’s long-term physiologist, Tim Noakes.

However, Pugh’s body temperature spikes at an astonishing 38.4 degrees Celsius before he enters the water. For most people, this would be the kind of heat you’d expect from a low fever. This is phenomenon Noakes calls “anticipatory thermogenesis,” although he is still unsure what causes it exactly.


In the freezing black water, Pugh found himself being half-blinded by sunlight – the sun never sets this far north in July – meaning he couldn’t see the signals from his support team, nor could he hear any directions. Without these guidelines, Pugh was left to count his strokes, but he rhythms were off, he couldn’t control his kicking and his frozen hands were fast becoming rigid claws, pawing the water. Eventually he called to his support boat and asked to get out of the water, but the boat had to first clear its sluices, so instead of treading water to wait, Pugh swam on. He went on for a further 50 metres, breaking the distance down into manageable sizes. Then he pushed on to 750m, and then on to 800m and 900m after that, at which point his body went suddenly into shutdown mode. Pugh later said that he couldn’t remember the end of the swim and yet somehow, he crawled out to safety, having spent 22 minutes in the water, making this his longest sub-zero swim.

Back on the boat Pugh soon discovered that his body was bruised all over, although he couldn’t understand way. Later, we also watched some of Sky’s (who were present on the boat and filming the swim) footage of the ordeal, which he described as being “as raw as it gets”.

Three days after this record-breaking swim, Pugh admitted to having struggled. When asked if he might someday repeat the whole affair, he gave an uncommonly terse answer, seeming to be laden with the immense aches of his accomplishment.

“I ain’t got it in me,” he said, before adding: “[but] I will be fighting for the protection of the polar regions until my last day.”

Supposedly, those hours approaching each of his death-defying swims are the only part of his polar expeditions that Pugh doesn’t love. He admitted to feeling visceral anxiety in the run-up to this one, disputing the common assumption that these swims get easier over time. On the contrary, Pugh has found that swimming for long distances in these temperatures is only getting harder. Now Pugh is fully aware of the searing, hellish place he’s going to – he knows the pain that’s coming.

“Once you’ve experienced extreme cold, you never quite thaw out,” Mr. Pugh said. “It goes deep down into your muscles and into your memory.”

It might sound like madness, but if you ever find yourself questioning Pugh’s sanity, just remind yourself of one thing. When so many of us are content in doing nothing, such wild expeditions might seem abnormal, but it’s precisely because the problem is so great that Pugh is being pushed to such extremes. A defiant optimist, Pugh continues to lead by example in his campaign for healthier oceans. Over the coming months he will also be attempting ceremonial swims around the Lancaster Sound of the Canadian arctic and Franz Josef Land, which is a far-flung archipelago in the Russian Arctic. As always, his mission will be to promote awareness of climate change, whilst establishing the creation of more and more Marine Protected Areas.

Pugh is, of course, only one man, but his solitary example has cast a long and looming shadow over a very powerful minority, presently slumped on plump bean-cushions of apathy.

“When I did my North Pole swim in 2007,” Pugh wrote on his website, “There were a number of leaders denying what was happening in the Arctic. Today there is just one.”

Jack Hudson