People ask me, why oceans?
My decision to become an ocean advocate didn’t happen all at once.
It began with the stories of exploration I loved as a child, and in the flights of imagination sparked by the world maps my father hung around our various homes, from Plymouth, to Malta to Cape Town, where my father was stationed by the Royal Navy.
It grew along with my sense of justice while I read law at the University of Cape Town, at the end of the Apartheid era. I had the privileged of being taught by a number of great South African icons. I will never forget the thrilling moment our law lecturer held up a copy of the country’s new constitution, which was busy being negotiated in those heady times. It remains one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.
Then there was the sense of achievement I felt after my very first Robben Island swim at just 17 years old. It taught me that finishing a job gives you the power and the energy to go on to even bigger things.
Most importantly, it was in the way the natural environment influenced my development. I was awed by my first experience of real African wilds. I was awed in a different way in the Southern Ocean, when I found myself swimming over a graveyard of bones at Whaler’s Bay.
I remember my father telling me about the first British atomic bomb test; when he held his hands over his face he saw his bones silhouetted as if it was an x-ray. If this is what a nuclear explosion does to us, I thought to myself, imagine what it did to the environment?
The seminal moment for me came when I swam across the North Pole. Besides being a swim that challenged me at every level, it was one that I shouldn’t have been able to do at all. It was a stark demonstration of what global warming was doing to our planet. And I knew it was only going to get worse.
Since that day every swim I have done has been to highlight a crisis for our oceans, from plastic pollution to overfishing and the frightening evidence of a warming planet, which is most obvious at the poles.
When I was appointed United Nations Patron of the Oceans my emphasis shifted yet again, from campaigner to environmental diplomat. It fell upon me to speak for the oceans and all the creatures in them that have no voice. I have taken their message to the Kremlin, to the UK Parliament and to Westminster Abbey. I’ve taken it to schools and corporate conferences. I’ve shared my mission with the World Economic Forum and in two different Ted Talks.
After my Ross Sea swim in 2015, which led to the declaration of the biggest protected area in the world, I established the Lewis Pugh Foundation to campaign for Marine Protected Areas in all of our oceans. They are the best means we have to protect them. My dream is to have 30% of the world’s oceans properly protected by 2030. This journey is only just beginning.