The Ross Ice Shelf is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. It rose straight up out of the Bay of Whales, the world’s southernmost body of water. Strong winds rushed over its cliffs, sucking any warmth out of the air. Was I seriously thinking of going for a swim here, in nothing but my Speedo swimming costume? Could I afford not to?
I’ve seen sports diplomacy work wonders in my lifetime. President Nixon sent a Ping-Pong team to China in 1971. It thawed US-Sino relations. And Nelson Mandela wore the South African rugby team’s jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup to send a powerful message of unity and reconciliation.
For the last four years Russia has vetoed proposals to have the Ross Sea declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA). I wanted to break the deadlock, and find a way to bridge the gap between Russia and the USA. Would some “Speedo diplomacy” work?
Diving into Antarctica’s Ross Sea at 78° South was not something I took lightly. It would be the most dangerous swim I’d ever undertaken. But it would definitely draw the world’s attention to what we risk losing if we don’t work together.
There is no sea as pristine and unspoiled as the Ross Sea. It’s the last true wilderness left on earth, and is crucial for science.
But industrial fishing is plundering this Polar Garden of Eden. Over the next few years, they are set to take 50% of the Antarctic toothfish from the Ross Sea. When you rip out an apex predator, the entire ecosystem can collapse. It’s that simple.
Yet the 25 nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) struggled to find agreement. I hoped a symbolic act might unite them.
When the day came, conditions were far from ideal. The sea was angry, the wind even angrier. We weren’t sure we could launch a support boat, let alone attempt a swim.
The water temperature was below freezing at 30°F, the air temperature minus 35°F. When I lifted my arms out of the icy sea into that air, the pain was even more excruciating than the agony in the rest of my body.
With each stroke I watched myself freeze. After 100m the first digits of my fingers were completely white. After 200m the white had spread up to the second knuckle, at 300m I couldn’t feel my hands. At 350m it was time to get out of the water. I had undertaken the most southern swim in the world. I was alive. My fingers should recover. But had I made my point?
I travelled directly to Moscow to urge Russia to support the call to protect the Ross Sea. Now I’m here in the US. The timing isn’t great. People say we are entering a new Cold War. But in both countries, I’ve met leaders who see the bigger picture. They understand that when we damage our environment, we create conditions ripe for conflict; but when we protect our environment, we foster peace.
Two months after my swim, I can feel my left hand again. I’ve been invited back to Moscow next month for more discussions. I won’t stop until the penguins and the leopard seals, the killer whales and the Antarctic toothfish they all depend on, are safe and protected.
Declaring an MPA in the Ross Sea will send out a message of hope. It will signal that we can see beyond our differences to a common future. In a world gone wrong, it will be a magnificent symbol of what we can get right.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans
This op-ed was printed in the USA Today on 12 May 2015