What would Nansen do?

She is no conventional beauty. But she is the strongest little ship I’ve ever seen.

I felt so alive, standing in Oslo’s Fram Museum, looking up at the famous polar vessel. It thrilled me to know that this unassuming ship carried Norway’s greatest explorers farther north and farther south than any humans had gone before.


I spent a long time looking at her bow, strengthened with steel so that Fridtjof Nansen could push north through the polar ice in 1895. I moved up onto the deck, closed my eyes and imagined how Roald Amundsen might have felt, standing at the helm just over a hundred years ago, looking out across Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and the massive ice cliffs that tower up out of the Ross Sea, gathering himself for his historic walk to the South Pole.

That scene wasn’t hard for me to picture. Earlier this year I stood on the deck of another ship in the Bay of Whales, preparing to attempt the southernmost swim ever undertaken. I’ve pioneered swims at both poles, but the Bay of Whales is the most terrifying place I’ve ever visited. Although February is technically summer in the southern hemisphere, the air temperature was minus 37°C. Stripping down to a Speedo swimming costume and diving into water of minus 1°C was not something I undertook lightly.

And now here I was in Oslo on a beautiful summers day, surrounded by tourists strolling around the harbour eating ice creams. I couldn’t be further from Antarctica. But the polar continent was the reason I was here.


The previous day I’d met with Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende to discuss an issue of critical global importance, in which I believe that Norway can once again play a pioneering role. It seemed fitting that we shook hands in his office beneath a portrait of Fridtjof Nansen.

As well as being a man of action and of science, Nansen was a statesman, a humanitarian and a Nobel Peace Laureate. Qualities which I’m asking the Norwegian people to draw upon at this crucial time, to guide the nations of the world to do the right thing and declare the Antarctic Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Earlier this year I put my body on the line by undertaking the world’s southernmost swim to highlight the importance of this area, and our need to protect it, before it is too late. It is not possible to swim any further south than the Bay of Whales. It is also not possible to experience a more pristine marine environment.


I will never forget sailing into the Ross Sea and seeing emperor penguins, leopard seals, and killer whales. It’s like a Polar Garden of Eden. There are some places in the world that are so magnificent and special that they should be protected for their own sake, in the same way that the great land-based wilderness areas like the Serengeti are treasured and preserved.

The delicate ecological balance that exists in the Ross Sea is found nowhere else on earth. But like the rest of the world’s oceans, even this remote wilderness is now under threat from industrial fishing.

No-one would ever suggest taking 50% of the lions out of the Serengeti. And yet that is what is being proposed for the Antarctic toothfish (sold as “Chilean Sea Bass”), a key predator species in the Ross Sea, unless an MPA is declared.

The animals that live in the Ross Sea are slow to reproduce, which means they have little capacity to cope with industrial fishing.  We’ve already seen dramatic collapses of fish populations around the world – from the cod of the Grand Banks to bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. Ninety percent of the world’s big fish have been eliminated from our oceans.

What has this to do with Norway? Why am I appealing to the Norwegian people, and to your government?


Because I believe Norway is the only nation that can broker an agreement and break the deadlock in CCAMLR.

Despite four years of negotiations, the 25 nations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources have failed to agree on the terms of the proposed Ross Sea MPA.

Russia is currently chair of CCAMLR. It will soon celebrate the bicentenary of the discovery of Antarctica by Russian explorer Admiral Bellingshausen. There could not be a more opportune time to protect the Ross Sea for future generations.

And yet Russia has consistently vetoed the proposal. Why?

We live in a complex geopolitical world. Some say we are entering a ‘new Cold War’. There are nations that will not, or cannot be seen to, deal directly with Russia, and visa versa.


But Antarctica is a place of peace. In 1959, at the height of the cold war, the USA, USSR (as it then was), Norway, and 9 other nations with interests in Antarctica came together to declare the continent a nuclear and weapons-free zone, dedicated to peaceful and scientific cooperation.

The Antarctic Treaty is a shining example of how we can work together, if we really want to. Now is the time to extend that protection to the continent’s waters by declaring the Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area.

Norway has good relations with Russia in the Arctic, as demonstrated by its recent successful maritime border negotiation and shared management of the cod fishery in the Barents Sea. Your country also has a proud reputation of being negotiators for peace.

If Norway can inspire Russia to lead the world in preserving this last great marine wilderness, it will send a wave of hope through the Ross Sea ecosystem, and around the globe. Hope that we can resolve conflicts and build bridges for peace elsewhere in the world.

We have a once-in-history opportunity to preserve the last pristine marine wilderness on earth, for all our sakes.

I have no doubt that if Fridtjof Nansen were with us today, he would be leading this charge.

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and United Nations Patron of the Oceans. Twitter: @LewisPugh


This opinion piece was published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on 18 July 2015