Lewis Pugh was recovering at home in South Africa when I spoke with him by phone. Just four days earlier he had finished a monumental swimming challenge, completing seven long-distance swims in under a month. He quietly said “It was much harder than I thought”, which was a surprising admission from this world-renowned endurance swimmer. But I realized he wasn’t talking about the swimming, he was talking about the mission.
Lewis is the United Nation’s Patron of the Ocean, and the challenge was to undertake the first long distance swim in all the Seven Seas, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Black, the Red, the Arabian and finally the North Sea. The goal was to highlight the need for more Marine Protected Areas and to conserve the ocean for future generations. But sea by sea Lewis’s opinion changed and he formulated a different and much more urgent message.
At the start of the mission Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Lewis in South Africa. Lewis recalls that “Desmond Tutu came to see me off and he said to me the root cause of so many of the conflicts which I have seen is one thing, and that is the lack of resources. When we damage the environment we exacerbate this, but when we protect the environment we foster peace.” This thought would stay with Lewis as he swam.
Lewis started the swim at Lavrotto Beach in Monte Carlo, in the Mediterranean Sea, where he was met by well-known ocean advocate HSH Prince Albert of Monaco. At Zadar in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea the local mayor was there and many school children plunged into the water with Lewis. In Greece, a local ship owner helped out. In the Red Sea, the King of Jordan lent Lewis his boat while the Navy escorted forty children who came to swim with Lewis. “It was clear to me that people from across the spectrum share a passion for protecting our oceans” Lewis said.
It was also clear that the Seven Seas shared a need for better ocean protection. Cans, tires, and bottles littered the seabed of the Aegean Sea, swarms of invasive jellyfish swam through the Black Sea, and in Jordan when Lewis asked if he should be careful about sharks he was told not to worry they’d all been fished out long ago. Lewis said, “It was an eye-opening experience. The United Nations Environment Programme is urging nations to set aside 10% of the oceans as effective marine protected areas, but from what I saw 10 percent simply won’t do it. In 4 weeks of swimming I didn’t see one fish bigger than my hand, I didn’t see one shark, one whale, or one dolphin.”
The last leg of the Journey was the longest, and the toughest, a sixty kilometer swim from the North Sea and up the river Thames at night. The water was a frigid 14C. “It was hard, I struggled, sixty kilometers is a lot of kilometers” Lewis said. “All the time I was thinking this is utterly miserable, but I just get like a bulldog and I just keep on going.” It’s his approach to swimming as well as to ocean conservation. Rather than be put off by the repeated lack of sea life or almost overwhelming amount of pollution, Lewis has been ignited to do even more to protect our oceans.
He says “Without a shadow of a doubt, if you were to go 50 years from now and ask what is the most important decision on the desks of our global leaders today, it is How do we effectively protect the environment and the oceans? Because if we don’t solve these issues NOW, they become unsolvable in years to come.”
He looks back at successful global movements from the past citing the Suffragette movement or the end of Apartheid in South Africa “The tipping point occurs when year after year after year people stood up and said enough is enough we need change. So I appeal to people around the world, start talking about what’s happening in our oceans, blog about it, tweet about it, talk to your congressmen, talk to your member of parliament, politicians are only going to affect change if they feel the sense of urgency.”
And it’s the urgency that has now changed for Lewis. He had been thinking about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words and passionately spoke about the immediate need for better marine protection “So I was coming at it from a different angle by the end. I was thinking, Hold on! If we want to foster peace the most important thing we can do right now is to focus our efforts on marine protected areas, national parks, cleaning up rivers, and tackling climate change! Those are the really important things that are facing our leaders!” When I ask him why he thinks marine conservation often takes a back seat to other political decisions he speculates “They think it is a problem for our children or our grandchildren.” Then he talks about his own message: “We had been talking about the need to protect these oceans for future generations, but it’s not about future generations, we’re mistaken, from what I have seen it’s about our generation.”
To read a full account of Lewis Pugh’s ‘Seven Swims in Seven Seas for 1 Reason’ go to lewispugh.com