Two years ago when I launched a campaign to protect the Ross Sea in Antarctica, the Daily Telegraph called me crazy.
“Pugh is like a detective that has been given 24 hours before he gets taken off the case,” the paper said. Adding, “His idea is so crazy it might just work.”
The crazy idea was that I would undertake a series of swims in the sub-zero waters of the Ross Sea to highlight their importance, and then try and persuade Russia to back the formation of a Marine Protected Area there – even though they had blocked the proposal at CCAMLR (The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) on five occasions.
A DREAM COME TRUE
Today I am thrilled to tell you that the crazy plan worked – even if it took me a lot longer than 24 hours! In fact, it consumed my every waking hour – and most of my dreaming ones – for the past two years.
I spent those years shuttling back and forth to Russia, speaking with their leadership to encourage them to join the other CCAMLR nations in protecting the Ross Sea. And now they have.
This is a very big moment in the history of conservation. Here’s why:
First, at 1.57 million square kilometres, the Ross Sea MPA is the world’s biggest protected area in history. To put it in perspective, it’s bigger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy combined.
Second, as the first large-scale marine protected area in the high seas, the creation of the Ross Sea MPA sets an important precedent. The high seas represent 45% of our planet, and yet they are largely unprotected.
Third, the Ross Sea is home to many creatures found nowhere else, including 50% of the world’s ecotype-C killer whales (also known as the Ross Sea orca), 40% of the world’s Adélie penguins, and 25% of the world’s emperor penguins. It urgently needed protection from the kind of rampant overfishing that has decimated marine species in other oceans.
And forth, what makes this achievement even more remarkable is that Russia, the US, the EU and the 22 other CCAMLR nations shook hands in a time of strained political relations.
Today, I don’t feel crazy; I feel incredibly grateful. Many, many people helped me make this MPA a reality, and I have many to thank personally. However, three Russians friends stand out; without their constant leadership and guidance, this MPA would never have seen the light of day. Thank you to Slava Fetisov, Nick Bobrov and Sergey Rybakov – you made a world of difference.
I also wouldn’t have been able to do it without the encouragement of the US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Under Secretary Catherine Novelli.
Most importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support of my wife Antoinette, who kept the home fires burning while I traveled, and urged me on when the task seemed impossible. She may be the single person who sacrificed the most during this campaign, and I am deeply grateful to her.
I know she doesn’t regret the sacrifice. Like me, she knows it was all worth it, because the Ross Sea has been protected.
MORE TO COME
She also knows that the story doesn’t end here. The real work starts now.
My hope is that we can create a series of MPAs in other critical areas around Antarctica including the Weddell Sea, the Antarctic Peninsula and East Antarctica.
Finally, in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, Antarctica was set aside as place for peace and science. Today’s announcement shows that Antarctica continues to be a place for peace and bridge building, a place where we can find common ground. So let us use what has been achieved here to foster dialog and cooperation in other parts of the world.
That idea doesn’t seem so crazy, now, does it?
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans
Photo credits: Kelvin Trautman