I’ve been swimming for 35 years, pioneering swims in the most vulnerable ecosystems to get them protected.
Which was the hardest, which was the most memorable? Three swims stand out.
The first was my swim across the North Pole to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice. The water was minus 1.7°C. Nobody had ever swum in such cold temperatures before. I wasn’t even sure I would come out alive. So that required a deep conviction that what I was swimming for was the defining issue of our generation.
The second swim was in the Ross Sea in Antarctica. It led directly to the creation of the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. The day this was announced was the happiest of my life.
And lastly, my swim along the length of the English Channel. The 528 km swim pushed me to my absolute limit. However, it kick-started the largest conservation drive in history. After the swim, the UK agreed to support our campaign to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, and called on other nations to do the same. Thus far, 74 nations have pledged their commitment, with more joining all the time.
Below are some of the other swims I have undertaken, and honours I’ve received.
23 January 2020
Under the Antarctic Ice Sheet
I undertook the first swim under the East Antarctica ice-sheet to highlight the rapid melting taking place in this region. Now I am helping to create a network of Marine Protected Areas in the region.
12 September 2019
Mungo Park Medal
I was awarded the Mungo Park Medal for an outstanding contribution to geographical knowledge in a potentially hazardous environment by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
12 July 2018
Length of the English Channel
I was the first person to swim the length of the English Channel. The 528km swim took me 49 days to complete. Afterwards the UK agreed to champion a global target of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.
7 November 2017
Grytviken, South Georgia
South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. After the swim the UK increased its protection of this area from just 3% to 23% – an increase of 264,000km2. For me this is still unfinished business. This entire area needs to be protected.
15 May 2017
Adjunct Professor of Law
I am honoured to serve the University of Cape Town, where I first read law in the early 1990s. It was a very difficult time in South Africa. I owe so much to those teachers who helped forge my sence of justice.
19 June 2016
I visited the South Jersey Shark Tournament and was horrified to find that a number of major corporations are sponsoring the slaughter of endangered shark species. Since then I’ve got many to stop.
23 September 2015
Doctor of Science (honoris causa)
I was born in Plymouth. To be awarded a doctorate from the University of Plymouth, which is renowned for all things maritime, felt like coming home.
25 March 2015
Ross Sea, Antarctica
It’s the most frightening place to swim. The water was minus 1.7°C and the air temperature was minus 37°C. Afterwards Slava Fetisov and I persuaded Russia to sign the deal that created the largest protected area in the world.
3 October 2014
Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year
I was named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2015. It was a wonderful honour. Tragically, my fellow awardee Ueli Steck was killed on Mt Everest shortly afterwards.
10 October 2013
International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame
I was so proud to be inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, the highest honour in my sport.
19 June 2013
UN Patron of Oceans
When I was appointed me as the UN Patron of the Oceans, my brief was simple: be a voice for the world’s oceans, for the penguins, whales, sharks, seals and all its magnificent creatures.
23 May 2010
I undertook the highest swim in the world. Swimming at altitude is extremely challenging. Swim slowly and you’ll get very cold; go too fast and you can drown – which I very nearly did on my first atempt.
1 January 2010
Young Global Leader
I was grateful to be appointed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. It’s a key gathering for business and political leaders, together with civil society, to drive positive change in the world.
11 December 2009
Order of Ikhamanga (Gold Class)
This is South Africa’s highest honour. The Gold Class has only been awarded to a sportsperson four times, in a country with a history of sporting excellence.
15 July 2007
I undertook the first swim across the North Pole, to highlight the rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice. Since then it has continued to melt.
17 July 2006
Length of the Thames
I was the first person to swim the length of the River Thames to highlight the impact of climate change on the United Kingdom. It was the hottest summer on record and the river had stopped flowing at its source.
27 January 2006
My Pacific Ocean swim was the last swim I needed to become the first person to undertake a long-distance swim in every ocean. It was the end of an incredible journey, which had began 14 years earlier.
16 December 2005
When I swam across Deception Island, a former whaling station in the Southern Ocean, the sea floor was white with whale bones. I knew I could no I longer swim just to break records; every swim had to have a purpose. I’ve been a voice for the world’s oceans ever since.
1 May 1987
I was 17 when I undertook my first long-distance swim – from Robben Island to Cape Town. I barely made the eight kilometres. If I look back on all my swims this one probably means the most to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had found my calling.