If you could imagine a modern day Neptune then perhaps he might look like this. Piercing blue eyes, broad chest to fit the massive lungs and pectorals needed to swim the world’s most dangerous oceans. There might be a map of the sea behind him. A bookshelf filled with books on the marine environment, inspirational humans, maps of the world.
His father’s naval cap might sit on top of a heap of such books. In an instant he might be able to pull out a book on a vanishing species or a chart, or a photo of him swimming amongst the icebergs. A modern day Neptune might have been in the SAS, studied law to be able to view life through the lens of justice.
He might have been brought up in Plymouth, growing up amidst the statues of Sir Francis Drake, Scott of the Antarctic, Sir Francis Chichester, the first known man to circumnavigate the world single handed. Plymouth, where you grow up looking towards the horizon. He might now be living in South Africa, specifically, the magnificent Atlantic beach of Noordhoek, whose white, wild sands stretch for miles. Noordhoek, next stop the South Pole.
Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the Oceans, isn’t Neptune but he is all of these things and it’s via zoom that I gain a window into his land base. A book and map filled study, complete with naval cap, in a white wooden outbuilding in view of the South Atlantic Ocean that stretches down to his beloved Antarctic, turning into the wild and treacherous Southern Ocean on the way.
I had heard Lewis speak on several occasions and met him first at a dinner in a gilded room in London 17 years ago. I sat next to him and wrote him a text afterwards. I felt strange writing it but compelled to send it. I wrote to him that sitting in his presence, the room slowed to his heartbeat; that’s what it was like to sit next to him.
Nearly twenty years later he’s thankfully grateful for the comment as slowing the room to his pace is now one half of his mission – and that is the negotiation with governments on protecting our marine life.
“I haven’t met a politician who doesn’t work to protect the environment,” he says. “However, they are all dealing in a complex world where they are dealing with a lot of pressing issues. I have thirty minutes with them. I have to make sure that what I draw to their attention really pops that day and that they understand that the decisions they make are critical to our future.
“In negotiations slowing things down is really important. We can’t make rash comments, we need to build bridges. It’s not vodka shots, it’s whiskey; taste, swill, swallow, listen. Put myself into his shoes and him into mine. There is always a bridge, a promised land and you have to find it and you won’t find it if you’re in a rush.”
If one could broadly describe the UN Patron of the Ocean’s role then there are two key facets. Neptune on land and Neptune in water. On land he is the statesman of the seas; meeting with government heads in Washington, London, Moscow and Beijing to impress upon them the need, no, the must, to protect our Polar regions and our marine environment as mission critical to the sustainability of the planet.
In water, Neptune is engaged in doing unfathomable – excuse the nautical pun – swims in places where either you shouldn’t be able to swim; such as supraglacial lakes and Arctic rivers, or in places that one year are so cold as to nearly kill you and then five years later aren’t; why, because the oceans are heating. And as they heat so do the chances for our future lack of sustainability and indeed planetary survival.
“ I don’t want leaders to worry about the Arctic or the Antarctic,” he says. “I want them to lose sleep over it.”
The combination of the above he describes as “Speedo Diplomacy”.
“The thing about Speedo Diplomacy is that everyone gets it. It’s a language which everyone understands – you can speak to all those leaders. There can be beauty in adversity. Everyone can see there’s someone out there fighting and the message is so simple. He’s swimming in places you shouldn’t be able to. For us.”
I once had a chat with Mike Horn, the epic explorer, and asked about what it was like to walk the Arctic. So let’s consider what walking is to someone like Mike Horn. It’s sub-sub-zero, you’re pulling a 200kg sled and you’re walking on what maybe hard ice or about to step on thin ice that once through it will see you be pulled by your sled to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
Walking is hyper-extended – why? Because a million steps taken at normal extension will mean you might need to take another four weeks’ worth of steps before you get to see your wife and family again. It’s walking but not walking.
To put Lewis Pugh’s swimming into context it’s the same thing. He wears Speedos and leaps into a sea that within five seconds would kill most of us from cardiac arrest. He swims along Arctic rivers that at any moment may see the entire ice bank either side move and engulf him. He swims through water that might run over a 300km plunge-hole sucking him into the icy abyss. There may or may not be polar bears watching their dinner swim by.
The sea is so cold that the damage done to the nerve endings on his feet means that walking on stones is now like an Inquisitioners’ torture. Nerves in his hands and fingers are destroyed. He calls the things that cause these “a high consequence environment”.
For us that might mean that the wave machine is about to come on. For the UN Patron of the Oceans it adds the anxiety that each stroke could create a fatal consequence.
“I’m trying to shine a light on these areas which are far away from these leaders. I’m literally going to the scene of the crime, 15000kms away from Moscow is Antarctica.
“When I’m in the ice shelf all I’m seeing are supra glacial lakes and rivers that shouldn’t be there. This is going to have a huge impact.
“In my discussion with the Russians I see a Russian crest, a two headed eagle that looks East and West – East to Beijing and West to London and Washington. I’m urging them to look North and South, to the Arctic and the Antarctic because our futures will be determined by those regions.
And there’s the tension. Pugh is calmly negotiating our planet’s future whilst being in the environment, being in the freezing Polar oceans, seeing the change which notably includes a change in water temperature at the scene of one of his first Polar swims off the island of Spitzbergen from 3 degrees to 10 degrees in just a few years – a massive shift.
“ I can see it changing quickly and if we don’t solve it quickly we’re in complete climate change yet on the other hand negotiations require patience and basic building blocks.”
One of his toughest swims was the mammoth undertaking of swimming the entire length of the English Channel – some 580 kms. The swim of 50 days brought with it daily coverage from SKY TV of the issues, wildlife and people that lived along its coast and a push to engage Secretary of State Michael Gove to undertake more measures to ensure marine conservation.
“The night before I started England were in the World Cup Semi-Final. The crew were out and I was alone thinking I don’t know if I can do this. The next morning I walked down to the beach and made myself three promises; I’m leaving my doubt here on the beach; every day I’m going to swim 10km and if we can’t go out for whatever reason due to the weather then the next day I will swim 20km.
“Then I shook their hands, ran into the sea and started swimming.”
The swim included storms, night swimming being pushed backwards, 120 km across jellyfish infested Lyme Bay and the treacherous St Katharines’s point off the Isle of Wight.
“Of all the swims I’ve ever done in the world, around Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the North Cape, NOTHING was as dangerous as St Katharine’s point during a storm.
“Some days were beautiful, others required vossbait – an Afrikaans word meaning “tight, hard – perseverance, grit, resilience.
“Other days I just counted the strokes, 1-10. When I’m swimming alone, my life is on the line. It’s not that I have a death wish, I love life, I love all forms of life.”
A former Law Student of the University of Cape Town, Pugh quotes a section from a document that several of his lecturers had a hand in drafting – the post apartheid South African constitution.
“A constitution! You’re putting down your dreams on what a country should look like! Section 24 – everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being… everyone has the right to an environment that is protected for the benefit of present and future generations.
“ Imagine if every country had that in their laws!”
The problem is they don’t and whilst politicians are usually 90% of the way there in terms of agreeing that aren’t things terrible and don’t things need to be done, it’s the final 10%; the doing bit that creates the planetary challenge.
In 2020 it also led to failure for Pugh. After the usual glacial (again, excuse pun) progress of setting things in motion in March to follow up in October, both the Chinese and the Russians failed to sign up to anything definitive on the issue of marine preservation.
“There is a race against time to create Marine Protected Areas. This isn’t going to be one definitive battle but one that you and I are going to have to fight, your children, grandchildren and every succeeding generation. We are facing a climate emergency.”
The battle isn’t helped when one considers that no one for example from a few MPs and Peers have actually bothered to visit the Polar regions and that governments at least in the West, operate along very short four or five year cycles.
Perhaps this is where business comes in – and not the ones who are planting forests in Sussex to off-set mining in the South Pole.
“Businesses need clean water, clean air, food security, healthy employees, stable markets. Rivers need to be swimmable, drinkable, fishable. It’s not just about sustainable development, you have to have both. You’ve got to protect the environment.
“It’s not a choice anymore between the environment and business. They’ve got to work together. We’ve seen supply chains get broken in Covid. Business relies on a healthy environment.
“ Business is where the change is happening so much quicker – and that’s the joy and the excitement.”
All of which is great but shocking when we think how much is being left to a 50 year old in Speedos leaping into ice fatal water to prove a point.
“The younger generation are demanding that companies care about the environment and rightly so. For me these swims are about justice, These swims are a fight for justice and there are two types of justice – intergenerational – that we leave our children in a world that is sustainable, no, MORE sustainable and secondly that this is about inter-species justice – every animal has just as much right to live in this world as we do.
“I subscribe to the belief that if you have hope for the future you have power in the present.
“You’ve got to have hope.”