Radical Tactical Shift: Swimming in Unfrozen Places

In the Arctic, global climate change is a story of disappearing ice. Midwinter sea ice has decreased by two million square kilometers since satellite records began 40 years ago, and glaciers in the Arctic have been melting at unparalleled speeds, profoundly impacting Arctic species and ecosystems. When it comes to activism about this troubling issue, endurance swimmer and U.N. Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh is literally all in.

Recently, Pugh swam along the sea ice off the Norwegian island of Svalbard, in water that the Monaco Glacier had occupied only a few years prior. Swimming a kilometer along the sea ice took him 22 minutes, longer than expected. He couldn’t remember ever having been so cold, he said in a statement. He was so chilled that his hands stopped functioning, and he had to bite his photographer’s drysuit sleeve so his crew could lift him into the support boat.

A source, who asked to remain anonymous as swimming was forbidden by the research station he worked for, swam in Antarctica’s Ross Sea and was impressed by Pugh’s accomplishment. “Being in such cold water even for just a second, it’s scary. Your body goes into shock— it was at one temperature, and now it isn’t suddenly. But when that’s over, it’s very rewarding and satisfying,” he told GlacierHub.

Witnessing changes to the oceans over his lifetime inspired Pugh to channel his talent for cold-water swimming into raising awareness about climate change. “I undertake swims in the most vulnerable parts of our oceans to campaign for the creation of marine protected areas,” Pugh said. He has finished a series of swims in his native South African waters, is the first person to complete long-distance swims in the ancient Seven Seas, and has accomplished distance swimming campaigns in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Raised on his father’s stories of famous polar explorers, Pugh yearned to visit the Arctic since he was a child, he told a TED audience in September 2009. He is deeply troubled by the rapid change he has observed since his first trip. “I’ve seen polar bears walking across very thin ice in search of food. I have swum in front of glaciers which have retreated so much, and… every year, seen less and less sea ice,” he said. “I wanted the world to know what was happening up there.”

In 2007, in order to shake lapels and stir up conversation about climate change, Pugh planned the world’s first distance swim at the geographic North Pole, swimming one kilometer in negative 1.7 Celsius water. Along with his support team, he caught a ride north on a Russian icebreaker and personally witnessed the vast loss of Arctic sea ice when they encountered patches of open sea at the pole. During the 18 minute and 50 second swim, his hands were so damaged by the cold water that he couldn’t feel them for four months after. He said the conversation generated about climate change made the pain worthwhile.

“Anyone who tells you they enjoy swimming in freezing water is either mad, or has never done it,” said Pugh. “I certainly don’t enjoy it. I am doing it to carry a message about the health of our oceans. We are in a very, very dangerous situation, and the world needs to know about it, and take immediate action.”

Pugh encourages everyone to consider the world they want their children and grandchildren to live in, and commit to a “radical tactical shift” that will make a positive difference to the future. “Very few things are impossible to achieve if we really put our whole minds to it,” he promises. The personal pain and struggle he endures for his dramatic accomplishments lend credence to this optimism; mitigation, perhaps, can be accomplished like a sub-zero distance swim, stroke by determined stroke.

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