Is there no place in the world that is sacrosanct? No wilderness we can leave alone? No place we can fully protect for nature’s sake?
Last month I was invited to address UK MPs at a reception in the House of Commons. I spoke about the plight of an incredible group of islands in the South Atlantic, which are in desperate need of full protection.
To get my message across, I took them through the changes I have witnessed in 30 years of swimming through the world’s oceans.
I started with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. One of the characters named Bill asks Mike, a businessman, how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answered. “Gradually, and then suddenly.”
To me, that’s exactly what’s happening in our oceans.
I remember vividly the joy of swimming amongst African penguins when I was a teenager in South Africa. Over the past 100 years their numbers have plummeted from over 1 million pairs to just under 26,000 pairs. The penguins tell us everything that is happening in our seas.
Fast forward to 2005, when I swam at Deception Island off Antarctica. The unending carpet of whale bones on the sea floor still haunts me. They were discarded by whalers last century, just like the enormous boiler vats that lie rusting on the beach. They are useless now, because we’ve seen sense.
Or have we merely shifted gear? First the industrial fishing fleets targeted the seals, then the whales, and now they’re taking the fish. They’re even going after the tiniest krill, the species on which all life in the Southern Ocean depends.
I also told the MPs about the biggest beach clean up in the world, which is taking place on Mumbai’s Versova Beach. I visited it two years ago. When local residents started cleaning the beach, the garbage was piled shoulder high in places. Granted, they have done an incredible job, but they are still cleaning nearly three years later! Each day, new plastic keeps washing up – plastic that we mindlessly throw away.
And in 2007, when I swam off the Indian Ocean Island of Maldives, I thought I’d stumbled onto the set of Nemo – multi-coloured fish living in exquisite coral gardens. Last year, I returned and swam over rubble. A few degrees rise in sea temperature had bleached the coral dead. The fish had disappeared and so had the island’s natural protection from storms. Now locals are desperately building flood defences to protect their homes.
Last year I also returned to Svalbard, twelve years after I first swam there right on the edge of the Arctic ice pack. In 2005 the water temperature was 3°C. Last year I was swimming in 10°C water. Mull over that – a 7°C rise in sea temperature in just 12 years! If you put ice in ten-degree water it will melt. Which is exactly what is happening to the glaciers and the sea ice in the Arctic.
Which brings me to the present, and the urgent task of protecting the South Sandwich Islands. This British Overseas Territory in the Southern Atlantic is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet. And yet less than 2% of the South Sandwich Islands and the neighbouring South Georgia are fully protected. This is outrageous.
The South Sandwich islands are home to a quarter of the world’s penguins, 50% of southern elephant seals, and breeding colonies of the world’s largest flying birds, the albatrosses. Its myriad fish and whale species include the endangered blue whale. Sir David Attenborough called it the most incredible place he had ever visited. I have swum in every ocean in the world, and I can only concur.
If there is any place in the world worthy of protection it is the South Sandwich islands. Because it is so remote, it is almost untouched. But as the rest of the oceans are emptied by industrial fishing fleets, it’s only a question of time before they head there.
I have seen our looming environmental bankruptcy with my own eyes. Change is gradual, and then it is sudden. And it’s happening on our watch.
Which is why I will fight tooth and nail to make sure this marine wilderness is protected. I’m calling on the UK to fulfil its moral obligations, and to lead the world in ocean conservation.
While there’s still some biodiversity in the bank.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans