13 Sep 2017 Story Oceans & seas

The very cold, hard truth about our oceans

This week, endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh swam the longest kilometre of his life.

He spent a full twenty-two minutes in the sub-zero waters along the Arctic Sea ice, at 80° north. And it wasn’t his first time. In the past decade Lewis has braved the waters of every ocean on earth, including 15 long-distance swims in some of the world’s coldest places.

This time, he almost paid for it with his life.




Lewis swims for no other reason than to focus your attention on the cold, hard truth about our oceans. By pushing his body to its absolute limits, he has become the visible frontman for an entire army of scientists, oceanographers, meteorologist, policy makers, and all of us at UN Environment. He amplifies a message the world desperately needs to hear: Our oceans are in trouble.

The fact that Lewis swims in places cold enough to kill you is what’s drawing people’s attention. But he knows, as we do, that the fact that he swims where there was solid ice just a few years ago is the real story. And it’s only the beginning of our collective worries:

  • The world is addicted to plastic, and it’s clogging our oceans. More than 8 million tonnes of plastics find their way into the ocean yearly.
  • Our oceans are losing life almost as fast as they are gaining plastic: our endless taste for fish means the population of several species, like Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, have declined so much that their survival is at risk. 
  • Our oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, making them ever less welcoming to species that can’t adapt quickly enough. 

Not many of us can face the elements the way Lewis does. But even without superhuman abilities, all of us can contribute to a more sustainable future and healthier oceans. We can say “no thank you” to that plastic bag at the grocery store. We can avoid products with microplastics. We can learn which fish species are overfished and stop consuming them.




And when we do visit the beach for a swim of our own, we can take sustainable transportation to get there.

As soon as he recovered enough from his freezing ordeal in the Arctic Sea, Lewis reached out to us to tell us where he’s going next. Because even the toughest swim of his life didn’t discourage him from advocating for the oceans. 

We at UN Environment are extremely thankful to Lewis. His continued commitment, relentless drive, and physical sacrifice are helping us spread the word about the state of our oceans and the role that every one of us can play in protecting them. We know that in Lewis we have a true warrior for the environment.