30 Aug 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Lewis Pugh completes epic "protest swim" along English Channel with urgent plea to save our seas

At the end of a brutal, record-breaking swim along the length of the English Channel, Lewis Pugh slapped his hand down on Dover's harbour wall before punching the air and hauling his battered body one last time through the choppy waves onto a windy, rainswept shingle beach beside the famous white cliffs.

"I'm exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure," he said as he climbed to the finish line, cheered on by crowds of people swaddled in raincoats or huddled under umbrellas.  

British Environment Secretary Michael Gove was among those who gathered to hail the swimmer and ocean activist who has become the first person to swim the length of the English Channel in just Speedos, goggles and a cap.

Since setting off from Land's End in Cornwall on 12 July 2018, Pugh has battled stormy seas, braved the stings of huge jellyfish, pushed through the pain of tendonitis in his shoulder and overcome crushing dead-of-night doubts as he traversed around 330 miles (530 km) along England's southern coast.

And he has done it all for one reason: to drive home the message that governments need to commit to fully protect at least 30 per cent of the world's oceans by 2030.

Even at the 11th hour of his 49-day Long Swim, the mercurial waters of the Channel sought to thwart the man known as the Human Polar Bear. Off Dungeness in Kent, the final headland he needed to cross, stormy conditions kept Pugh out of the water for two days, sparking doubts about whether he would be able to finish on time. But the clouds finally lifted, and with a series of night swims, using glow sticks to light the way, he got back on track.

On Wednesday, he completed the final 2.5 miles (4 km) to Shakespeare Beach in Dover. Fittingly, the skies were grey, the winds were high, and the sea looked feisty as he jumped off his support boat and set off with steady, determined strokes.

Lewis Pugh reaches the White Cliffs of Dover after having swum the length of the English Channel – more than 530 km.
Lewis Pugh reaches the White Cliffs of Dover after having swum the length of the English Channel – more than 530 km.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime type of swim. It was an immense swim ... It's been the toughest swim I've ever done by some distance," said Pugh, who is UN Environment's Patron of the Oceans and a staunch advocate of the organization's Clean Seas campaign. 

It's a mind-boggling admission from the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean in the world. In 2007, Pugh did the first swim across the North Pole to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice and, in 2010, he swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest to draw attention to the melting of the glaciers and the impact of reduced water supplies on world peace.

Once again, it was all about the message.

"This swim was not about being the first person to swim the length of the English Channel. I would describe it as a protest swim," he said. "It was a swim done to highlight what's happening in our oceans and to really try to get world leaders to understand how serious it is and how quickly our oceans are changing."

Pugh covered between 10-20 km (6-12 miles) each day. As he swam, he plucked bits of plastic waste and even balloons from the sea. He noted how little wildlife he saw.

"I saw some birds, I saw a few dolphins, I saw one turtle and not much else. Except lots of jellyfish. Jellyfish are a function of warming waters and overfishing. It was very shocking to see so little wildlife and yet so much plastic pollution," he said.

"It's almost as if we have taken out all the fish in the ocean and replaced them with plastics. We need to get these two issues under control very quickly: eliminate the use of avoidable single-use plastics and stop overfishing because if we don't do that our children and our grandchildren will not have a sustainable future and it will devastate all the incredible wildlife in our oceans, which it is currently doing."

Along the way, Pugh also found cause to celebrate. People came to swim with him, to clean beaches with him and to learn more about the threats to our oceans. He also paid tribute to his support team, noting that Channel swimming is not a solo sport.

"What has become very evident to me is how deeply members of the British public feel about what's happening to their oceans. They are walking along their beaches, they're seeing all the plastic, they are speaking to the fishermen, who are really struggling make any type of living from the sea," he said. 

"There are lots of things that ordinary members of the public can do but ultimately the government has to lead on this issue," he added. 

Before starting off on the final leg into Dover, Pugh met Environment Secretary Michael Gove on his support boat to urge him to do more to protect UK waters. Pugh has said the UK has only fully protected seven out of its 750,000 square kilometres.

Standing beside the still-dripping swimmer on the blustery beach, Gove recognized that more needed to be done.

"I think Lewis is amazing. He's a modern-day hero ... The Long Swim has really brought to everyone's attention how important our seas are and how important it is for all of us to do our bit to protect them and restore them to health, and to make sure that this amazing environmental resource is there for future generations ... Lewis' courage, grit and amazing dedication is an example to us all," Gove said on Sky News, which has backed Pugh's swim as part of its Ocean Rescue campaign. 

Although mentally and physically exhausted, Pugh has no intention of resting on his laurels. He will be attending the G7 summit on oceans and climate change in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September and then focusing on negotiations to protect oceans beyond national jurisdictions, taking place in New York in September. 

And even before the end of this mammoth swim, Pugh was already planning to push his body further. "This is a global campaign and I'll be planning similar swims in other countries to urge them to join this call for at least 30 per cent of our waters to be protected by 2030."

He is not ready yet to say where his next swim might be, but he says it is in the pipeline. For now, though, after completing a challenge he described as "the Everest of swimming", Pugh needs to take a break.