Diverse wildlife and untouched beauty.
Grytviken, South Georgia was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. But I was still shaken from my last swim three months previously, when I almost lost my life in the Arctic; I didn’t want to go through the trauma of severe hypothermia again.
When swim day dawned with clear skies and still waters, I knew cold wasn’t going to be a problem. But the wildlife was a significant issue; I was about to swim in one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, in waters no human had ever swum in before.
In all my years of swimming, I had never had so much safety around me. Three concentric circles of defence included safety paddlers Dawid Mocke and Peter Grantham in kayaks beside and behind; expedition leader Karin Strand with the stopwatch and blankets in the safety boat alongside; and Dr Roger Melvill in a high-speed rescue boat ready to race me back to the ship in the event of an emergency.
My Arctic swim taught me that, even with 30 years experience, things can go very wrong.
They say you should never try anything new on a race day, but this time I did something different. I’d always dived straight into the water. Given the likelihood of predators in the area, I decided to warm up by kayaking the route first, taking note of strategic landmarks – like the group of elephant seals around the halfway mark.
The astonishing wildlife here includes Antarctic fur seals, southern elephant seals, myriad whale species and vast colonies of penguins. This is the most important wildlife haven under British jurisdiction – and yet only 2% of the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are fully protected. This should be Britain’s gift to the world. I was swimming to remind people of just what it is that we need to protect.
I dived in from the slipway in front of the scientific station on King Edward Point and soon settled into my rhythm, with Dawid counting time alongside. I prayed that the elephant seals – which can weigh up to 4 tonnes – would stay where they were, safely basking on the beach. And they did.
As I neared the old whaling station, I swam over whalebones on the sea floor, a reminder that more than 175 000 whales were slaughtered here. Today the oceans face a triple whammy: industrial overfishing, plastic pollution and climate change.
I finished the swim, but it wasn’t over until I was past the last elephant seal and back in the support boat.
It was the first swim I ever ended with a high five to my support team they sped me back to a warm shower.
There is no section of sea with a fiercer reputation than Cape Horn.
Its waters are wild, its rocks are treacherous, its currents are unpredictable. All of which makes the tip of South America one of the most feared Capes in the world.
But when we arrived there for a practice swim for the Antarctica 2020 Campaign, the waters were calm and the day was balmy.
We had a few simple objectives: complete a long-distance swim around Cape Horn, get some cold water training before reaching Antarctica, and capture some arresting images at this iconic location.
As it turned out, that was a few objectives too many.
The swim went well. The water a relatively comfortable 7°C, and there was no sign of the infamous swell that earned the area the nickname ‘sailor’s graveyard’.
The going was still challenging; competing currents from the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans all come together here, churning up the water and making it hard for me to see where I was going. But our photographer had a clear view, and got great shots.
Once we were back on board the ship, however, I was told we had only done an 850m swim, not the requisite kilometre for a long distance swim. In all the excitement of being in this magnificent place, I had not explained this to my new team.
The last thing I wanted was to get back into the water. But the chance to do a long-distance swim around Cape Horn is a rare privilege, and 850 metres simply wasn’t good enough. So I did the swim again.
In retrospect, I’m glad I did it twice. In training terms, the year leading up to the Antarctica 2020 launch had been my worst ever. I’d had surgery on my spine, and spent the recovery months shuttling back and forth to Russia to secure protection for the Ross Sea. Now I’d returned to Antarctica to swim for six more Marine Protected Areas. But would my body handle the pressure of back-to-back cold-water swims?
You never know you’re ready until the moment you dive into the water.
After those two practice swims at Cape Horn, I felt ready.
The sun doesn’t set during the Antarctic summer; the light just gets dimmer, then gradually stronger again. But when I looked out of my cabin window on the morning of the swim that would launch the Antarctica 2020 campaign, I saw that it had dawned balmy and beautiful.
Half Moon Bay spread out before me, a calm crescent of turquoise blue water punctuated by pristine floating icebergs. Kayaker Dawid Mocke looked tiny paddling between those huge white monoliths, as he did an early-morning recce of the swim route. The former world champion would be my second on the swim. I watched him testing the currents as he measured a kilometre distance between a rocky promontory and an Argentinian scientific station. With my support team behind me, and after consecutive days of training in increasingly colder water, I felt confident about the swim.
I never imagined I would come so close to drowning.
People think the more swims you do, the easier it gets. But the toll on one’s body is cumulative. And the stark truth is that every swim is unpredictable. This would be my 12th serious polar swim, and the first time my tongue would freeze.
I had only done a fifth of the total distance when I realised I was in serious trouble. At the 200-metre mark I began to take in water. Each time I turned my head to take a breath, I gulped in water along with air. And because my tongue was freezing, I couldn’t expel that water from my mouth. It was a vicious circle.
I was terrified, but turning back was not an option. After our success in declaring the Ross Sea MPA, media attention was high. There are many more seas to save, and I have to keep doing these high profile swims until they are protected. So I just had to grind this one out.
I called out to Dawid to move us closer to the shore. I knew that if I drowned I would sink quickly to the bottom; the team would have a better chance of saving me in shallower water. His response was to spur me on even harder, shouting encouragement and counting out the distance left until the end. Through sheer force of will, we got there.
That flagship swim in the Bellingshausen Sea launched the Antarctica 2020 Campaign. Over the next three years I’ll be attempting more swims like this one, until we have a chain of Marine Protected Areas around the continent of Antarctica. The total area will be bigger than Australia, and will help protect this magnificent ecosystem, and all the creatures who live in it.
I know the risk I face each time I swim down here. But without proper protection, the risk of losing these natural wonders is even greater. And that’s a risk to all humanity.
I’ll never forget seeing the sea lions come out of the fern forest. Not only because the vegetation seemed strangely tropical, for an island halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, but because these are not the cute creatures you see in theme parks knocking around circus balls. Here they are MASSIVE.
We’d heard them as we approached the Perseverance Harbour, a long fjord that runs into Campbell Island; their sound is somewhere between a dog’s and a big cat’s roar. These were adolescent males, full of energy and hubris, busy testing out their strength on one another. They reminded me of bears, with their huge chests. I wouldn’t want to face one of these in the water.
But I still didn’t have permission to be in the water, even though we were half way across the Southern Ocean. The permit was an unexpected last-minute logistical nightmare that threatened our entire expedition. It was also preventing me from getting the training I needed to prepare for the challenging swims to come.
In 6 more days we would reach Antarctica, and I needed to acclimatize. For that, I needed to get in the water. The stress was taking its toll. I couldn’t bear the thought of aborting the mission, of letting my sponsors down, of telling the 34 people behind the mission that all their hard work had come to nothing. I hadn’t slept in three days.
Our ship was about to set sail from Perseverance Harbour when we got word that I had finally been given permission to swim by the New Zealand authorities. We scrambled to get our boat and crew ready. Our driver was anxious about sea lions, so we took the zodiac into the open water at the mouth of the fjord. “If we see a sea lion you have to jump out immediately,” he said. I agreed. I just wanted to get into that water.
I hadn’t gone more than 200m when I heard my crew screaming. I barely had time to put out my hand for them to haul me into the boat; the sea lion had come on fast, and got dangerously close.
I was glad to be alive, but I hadn’t been long enough in the water. I had only just got wet. And there were much bigger challenges to come.
Cape Adare is beautiful and dramatic. It’s hard to conceive of the scale of its enormous icebergs, or to imagine how people overwintered here in those pioneering Antarctica expeditions.
Forty percent of the world’s Adélie penguins live in the Ross Sea, and the biggest colony is here at Cape Adare. Everyone knows I love penguins, but I don’t want to be anywhere near a penguin when I swim in Antarctica. Because where there are penguins, there will be predators. And I don’t fancy my chances against a leopard seal or a killer whale.
On my last trip to Antarctica in 2005, I learned to throw chunks of ice into the water to replicate the sound a penguin would make if it jumped in. If no predators surfaced in the next minutes, we assumed the coast was clear.
That expedition was in midsummer, this one was later in the season, and further south. The difference in conditions is significant. I knew it would be a challenge, but I’ve been doing polar swims since 2003. I thought I knew what to expect. I didn’t expect to lose control of my hands.
My crew didn’t feel it was safe to swim from shore, so we had to find a gap in the sea ice. At minus 1.7°C, the water was the coldest it can get without freezing over. I knew even before I jumped out of the boat that I didn’t want this to be a long swim; my next swim in a few days time would be even tougher. I decided to swim for 500m or 10 minutes, whichever came first.
In the end I swam 540m in 10 minutes. When I tried to grab the rope at the side of the boat, I couldn’t feel it. When they finally hauled me in I realised I couldn’t feel one side of my face. It was as if a clumsy dentist had given me too much aesthetic.
This was by far the most painful polar swim I had ever done, and there was an even harder one ahead.
On the plus side, the hot shower that followed was the most memorable one I’ve ever had!
Of all the swims I planned to do, this is the one I wanted the most. But when we arrived, the wind was gusting over 70 knots. It didn’t look promising.
Cape Evans is the site from where Captain Scott set off across Antarctica. His hut is still there, as is Ernest Shackleton’s. This is where we waited and prepared, amidst all the comforts and paraphernalia of a polar explorer. It was extraordinary to be there, and be transported straight back to 1908. I tried to take it all in, but I was also keeping an eye on the weather.
If you look out at 70 knots blowing over the open sea, all you would see is white horses. But when that wind blows over a frozen sea, it looks like a mildly choppy day on the English Channel. You might not get the white horses, but that wind speed still prevents you putting a zodiac support boat in the water.
My heart sank when I was told we had to return to the ship without even attempting a swim. I would probably never come here again, and I was carrying a special message for the man this cape was named after. Admiral Evans had been Scott’s second officer, and when his grandson heard about the expedition he sent me a message to wish me the best of luck. I was deeply disappointed that I hadn’t been able to salute the admiral and his crew during a swim in that sea.
This was the big one. When I looked up at the Ross Sea Ice shelf rising straight up out of the Bay of Whales, it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen.
Katabatic winds rushed down the cliffs to meet the world’s southernmost body of open water, bringing the air temperature down to a bitter minus 37°C. Was I really going to take off all my clothes and climb into that water?
We had been at sea for 15 days, during which time I’d only managed to do 740m of training, which means hardly any acclimatizing. And I was about to undertake the most dangerous swim of my life.
Fear is helpful, panic is deadly. I rely on an amount of healthy fear to raise my core temperature; voluntary thermogenesis is what allows me to swim in extreme conditions. Panic undoes all that.
We only had one small window of opportunity. We weren’t sure we could even launch a support boat. But I wanted this swim.
The air was so much colder than the freezing sea. Each time I lifted my arm out of the sea and into that air, the pain was more excruciating than the burning agony I felt in the rest of my body.
It would be the first time I crossed the line between fear and panic in the water.
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 I knew it was time to get out of the water.
I had undertaken the most southern swim in the world. A lot of cold water swimmers might say 350m doesn’t count. I know that if I had done any more I wouldn’t be alive today.
And that day, I knew my message about the desperate need to protect the Ross Sea had come to life.
Peter I Island is one of the most remote islands on the planet. Less that 1000 people have set foot on it. It was also the site of one of the most memorable swims of my life.
We had left the Ross Sea and were now in the Bellinghausen Sea, named after a Russian admiral. Since my mission was about appealing to Russia to support the call for an MPA in the Ross Sea, I wanted to pursue any opportunity to connect with Russia.
At Peter I Island, I got so much more than I’d bargained for.
Firstly, it was a startlingly beautiful swim. The water was crystal clear and the ice formations were astonishing. I swam alongside an iceberg for what felt like a very long time. When the edge of the iceberg disappeared under the water, I continued to swim over it for many more minutes.
In my head, I’d known that only 10% of an iceberg appears above the water, with 90% below it. But it seemed like the first time I really experienced that fact, really felt it.
There is so much going on underneath the surface of our oceans – rare and astonishing and beautiful things. Things we forget about, because they are out of sight.
During that swim, I realised that while I had been concentrating on promoting an MPA in the Ross Sea, there are 13 seas around Antarctica. All of them under threat, all of them deserving protection.
We need a network of protected areas that includes the Weddell Sea and the Scotia Sea, the Bellinghausen and the Amundsen, the Ross, the Mawson and the Davis Seas.
Immediately following this swim I would fly to Moscow and to Washington D.C. But I knew that I couldn’t just campaign from London or New York. You have to immerse yourself in these waters to carry their message. I would have to come back many times to carry this campaign forward.
It was the end of this expedition. But it was the beginning of the campaign of my lifetime.
We expected extreme conditions. At 65° South the sky was grey, the clouds were ominous, and the water was 0°C. The aim was to document what happened to my body during the southernmost long-distance swim ever undertaken.At the start it was snowing heavily; on the way back from the half-way-mark (an iceberg) it was coming down in chunks. Tim Noakes was on the boat under a blanket watching the monitor, while Jonathan Dugas wrote vital statistics on a whiteboard to keep me informed. Suddenly, the information stopped coming. (I didn’t know it, but the pen had frozen!) Minutes passed. I pulled my head up and yelled, ‘WTF is happening?’ Tim started bellowing: ‘100 metres to go … 50 to go …’ He’d turned from doctor and scientist into coach.
When we finished the kilometre, we realised we’d forgotten to strap on the watch that carries my statistics from the heart rate monitor. We would have to do it all over again. (See Deception Island.) I was gutted. But I realised that the buck stops with me. Blame doesn’t solve problems and always leaves scars. We still didn’t have a basic checklist then. We do now.
This swim still haunts me. The idea was to see what happened to the body in extreme cold during the longest polar swim ever undertaken. I didn’t expect the setting to be so surreal – like something out of a James Bond movie. Deception Island is a horseshoe-shaped caldera with black volcanic beaches and snow-white peaks. There was once a whaling station here, and we were told that the water gets so hot during eruptions that it can melt the paint off ships. When we got there it was still an icy 2°C, and during the one-mile swim across Whaler’s Bay my core body temperature dropped to a dangerously low 33°C (hypothermia is official at 35°C).The water was shallow in places, and when I first dived in I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing: whale bones everywhere. Hundreds of them, jaw bones, ribs, long white spines … at times I was even touching them. I don’t know that there was a single turning point in my life where I realised protecting the world’s oceans was what I was meant to do, but that moment was a major awakening.