Earlier this year, British endurance swimmer and multi-record-breaker Lewis Pugh once again entered uncharted waters to add another daring swim to his list of aquatic feats. 

Wearing just a pair of Speedos, cap and goggles – what has become his trademark attire – this dauntless athlete, who has been dubbed the “Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming”, took the plunge into a barely-above-freezing meltwater river in Antarctica. 

In so doing, on 23 Jan 2020, he became the first person to swim beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet

Pugh spent around six months preparing for this epic challenge, training in progressively colder conditions – first in South Africa (where he now resides), then in lochs on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, UK, and finally in Antarctica during a brief acclimatization period prior to the main event. 

Meltwater lakes and rivers carved into the ice sheet are becoming ever more common during the Antarctic summer 

If you’re wondering how the water in Antarctica compares to other settings, Pugh helpfully offered a few scenarios for context. 

“When one swims in the Olympic Games, the water is 27°C (81°F). If you swim across the English Channel in the summer, that’s about 18°C (64°F). If you swim in the North Sea now [in May], that’s about 9°C (49°F). Drop down to 5°C (41°F), and that’s the temperature of the water that the passengers of the Titanic perished,” he explained. Pugh was swimming in water that was 0.1°C (32.2°F). 

When one has been really, really cold, one never ever quite thaws out.

So what’s it like diving into water that is only marginally above zero in just a pair of swimming trunks? “I can barely breathe, I’m gasping for air… One thinks that it’s a freezing feeling, but it’s actually the opposite: it feels like one is burning. By the end of the swim, my fingers were completely frozen – they were literally like planks.” 

Just before his Antarctic swim, Pugh had to mentally prepare and, he tells us, he had to 'commit 100%' 

As well as battling these startlingly cold conditions during the swim, which in total lasted for a little over 10 minutes, Pugh also had to travel through a glacial tunnel, passing just centimetres beneath beautiful but potentially deadly ice stalactites. 

He confided that this was simultaneously one of the scariest and most thrilling locations he has ever swam in.

“I remember standing at the start and I realised… if things did go wrong, and there was an icefall, there’s no way of turning back and swimming against the flow of the river," 

This is where I would die… It’s not a good thought to have just before attempting a swim like this!"

So I had to commit, I had to commit 100%, otherwise I just [wouldn’t] be able to do this. I dove into the water and, at that moment, there’s no future, there’s no past, one has to be absolutely present. 

Prior to the swim, Pugh explored the ice tunnel with two members of the project team: the former President of Costa Rica and now chairman of Antarctica2020, José María Figueres; and Russian Senator and fellow UN Patron Slava Fetisov 

Swimming down that tunnel, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my whole life."

"As I entered, the walls… were this beautiful turquoise blue, then as I went round the next corner, it was this royal blue, and then it was violet… The colours were absolutely amazing. But it hides a darker side: this place is beginning to melt and it’s melting fast.” 

Legendary ice hockey player and UN Patron of Polar Regions Vyacheslav (Slava) Fetisov helps Pugh to warm up after his subglacial swim 

As Pugh alludes to, this challenge wasn’t just about proving his physical prowess and mental resolve.

His primary motive was to draw the global gaze to a grave issue that, given it is playing out in an uninhabited place at the bottom of the planet, can all-too-easily be overlooked: the unprecedented (and unsustainable) melting of the frozen continent. 

Pugh is calling for a marine protected area to be established around East Antarctica in a bid to help the native fauna 

Hammering that point home, reports emerged just a couple of weeks after Pugh’s visit that Antarctica had experienced its hottest air temperature on record, peaking at 18.3°C (64.9°F). 

GWR is still awaiting verification of the final data from the World Meteorological Organization before it can be officially recognized but early signs point to its veracity, which would surpass the previous record high of 17.5°C (63.5°F) logged in Mar 2015.

Scientists estimated that in January (the height of summer at the South Pole), there were some 65,000 meltwater lakes, known as “supraglacial lakes”, on top of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. 

This large-scale glacial thaw opens up cracks in the ice and, in some cases, these develop into subglacial rivers, such as the one Pugh swam in during his latest record. 

Ultimately, all of this weakens the structural integrity of the continent’s icy surface. 

Less stable glaciers covering Antarctica risk ever-larger chunks of ice breaking away. 

The impact of rising temperatures is already making itself apparent. In 2017, the current largest iceberg (A68A) calved from the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. 

In a bid to halt declining ice and to protect Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem – as well as to mitigate the closer-to-home risk posed by rising sea levels if too much ice melts – Pugh is calling for international action. 

One of his headline proposals is to establish a marine protected area in the seas off East Antarctica. 

Given that the polar continent is managed by a number of governments, often with differing opinions and agendas, it is never easy to enact change there. 

However, Pugh more than most knows it is possible for he was a key proponent behind the creation of a similar protected zone in the Ross Sea on the other side of Antarctica in 2016. 

His long-term goal is to set up a network of protected areas that encircle the entire continent. 

Pugh has been the United Nations’ “Patron of the Oceans” since 2013. Even before he took on this official ambassadorial role, his professional experience as a maritime lawyer and passion for open-water swimming had inspired a unique formula for campaigning. 

Over the years, he has used extreme swimming feats (and the media attention they garner) to spotlight a variety of environmental issues – and not always in waters as remote as the poles.

Pugh swims past the Palace of Westminster in London during his Thames swim in 2006 

In 2006, Pugh became the first person to swim the length of the River Thames, the longest river in England (and second-longest in the UK after the Severn). 

He took on this 350-km (217-mi) stage swim to highlight that climate change was impacting countries like the UK, not just those at more extreme latitudes or in the tropics. 

As if to prove his point, at the time, there was a severe drought in the UK – so severe, in fact, that the very source of the Thames had dwindled to an unnavigable level. 

This meant that Pugh had to run the first 40 km (25 mi) before he could swap land for his more natural element. 

“I will never forget arriving at the source to find it had completely dried up,” he said at the time. “It was blisteringly hot. The swim was a slog from beginning to end. There was no flow whatsoever. Imagine putting your head down in a warm, muddy, polluted river for six to eight hours per day.” 

As part of his River Thames swim, Pugh called in at 10 Downing Street to discuss his climate-change concerns with the then prime minister, Tony Blair 

He has also undertaken the first long-distance swim across the North Pole (in 2007) – where the water temperature actually dipped under zero degrees, which is possible as salt water freezes at lower temperatures than fresh water. 

Pugh has also swam in a glacial lake at an altitude of 5,300 m (17,388 ft) on Mount Everest (in 2010), and completed a long-distance swim in each of the Seven Seas (in 2014). 

All the swims were performed to draw attention to environmental issues, particularly those worst-affecting marine ecosystems. 

Pugh during his record-setting swim that traversed the North Pole, where the water temperature dipped to subzero conditions 

More recently, Pugh took on another never-before-attempted swim in the English Channel. 

While many open-water swimmers have completed English Channel crossings between the UK and France (Pugh included, back in 1992), he became the first person to swim the length of the English Channel in 2018. 

The 49-day odyssey, which played out between Land’s End in Cornwall and Dover in Kent, was part of “The Long Swim” campaign, which focused on addressing over-fishing and plastic pollution in the waters around the UK. 

Pugh celebrates on Shakespeare Beach in Dover, Kent, UK, after completing his 49-day swim of the English channel lengthways 

To make his point, after finishing that record swim, Pugh said: “What has really shocked me is just what I haven’t seen… I’ve seen a few fish, a few dolphins, a few birds, lots of jellyfish, but virtually nothing else – the oceans around the UK are so badly over-fished. 

“We have this one opportunity now to protect the waters around the UK. If we don’t do that there simply won’t be any fish left for our generation – forget about future generations – if we don’t take action right now.” 

Find out more about Lewis Pugh and his work as UN Patron of the Oceans at his website

Header/thumbnail photo credits: Kelvin Trautman