Lewis Pugh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lewis Pugh
Lewis Pugh
Born (1969-12-05) 5 December 1969 (age 54)
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom, South Africa
Alma materJesus College, Cambridge University of Cape Town
Occupation(s)Endurance swimmer and Ocean advocate
Parent(s)Surgeon Rear Admiral P.D. Gordon Pugh and Margery Pugh
HonoursOrder of Ikhamanga (Gold Class) 2009
Doctor of Science 2015
Mungo Park Medal 2019

Lewis William Gordon Pugh, OIG, (born 5 December 1969) is a British-South African endurance swimmer and ocean advocate. Dubbed the "Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming", he is the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, and he frequently swims in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to their plight.[1]

Pugh is known for undertaking the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 with the aim of highlighting the melting of the Arctic sea ice. In 2010 he swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest, to draw attention to the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the impact the reduced water supply would have on peace in the region. In 2018 he swam the full length of the English Channel to call for 30% of the world's oceans to be protected by 2030.

Pugh was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010 and the United Nations appointed him as the first UN Patron of the Oceans in 2013.[2]

In 2016 Pugh played a role in creating the largest marine reserve in the world in the Ross Sea off Antarctica. The media coined the term "Speedo Diplomacy" to describe his efforts of swimming in the icy waters of Antarctica and shuttling between the US and Russia to help negotiate the final agreement on the reserve.[3][4][5]

Pugh currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of International Law at the University of Cape Town.[6]

Early life and family[edit]

Pugh was born in Plymouth, England, on 5 December 1969. His father, P.D. Gordon Pugh, was a surgeon in the Royal Navy, an author, and a prolific collector of ceramics of the Victorian era. His mother, Margery Pugh, was a Senior Nursing Sister in Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service.

Education and early career[edit]

Pugh grew up on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. He was educated at Mount House School in Tavistock. When he was 10 years old his family emigrated to South Africa. He continued his schooling at St Andrew's College in Grahamstown and later at Camps Bay High School in Cape Town. He went on to read politics and law at the University of Cape Town and graduated at the top of his Masters class.

In his mid-twenties he returned to England, where he read international law at Jesus College, Cambridge, and then worked as a maritime lawyer at Ince & Co in the City of London for a decade.[7] During this time he concurrently served as a Reservist in the British Special Air Service.


Over a period of 30 years Pugh has pioneered more swims around famous landmarks than any other swimmer in history. In an interview with Forbes he stated:

"Between Lynne Cox, Martin Strel and myself, we've hit all of the world's major landmarks. There's really nothing left."[8]

In 2013 he was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.[9]

Early swims[edit]

Pugh had his first real swimming lesson in 1986, at the age of 17. One month later he swam from Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) to Cape Town. In 1992 he swam across the English Channel. In 2002 he broke the record for the fastest time for swimming around Robben Island.

He was the first person to swim around Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point in Africa), the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula (a 100 km (62 mi) swim from Cape Town to Muizenberg). Pugh was also the first person to swim across an African Great Lake, namely Lake Malawi.

Cold water swims[edit]

Pugh training in Antarctica in 2005

After 2003 Pugh focused on pioneering swims in the coldest and most hostile waters of the world. All of them were undertaken in accordance with Channel Swimming Association rules, in just a pair of Speedo swimming trunks, cap and goggles.[10] He became the first person to swim around the infamous North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe. The following year he became the first person to swim down the entire length of Sognefjord in Norway, a 204 km (127 mi) swim which took him 21 days to complete.

In 2005 he broke the world record for the farthest-north long-distance swim by undertaking a 1 km (0.62 mi) swim at 80° North around Verlegenhuken, the northernmost cape in Spitsbergen. He followed that five months later by breaking Lynne Cox's world record for the farthest-south long-distance swim by undertaking a 1 km (0.62 mi) swim at 65° South at Petermann Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

In November 2017, Pugh became be the first person to swim in the Antarctic waters around South Georgia Island.[11]

Anticipatory Thermo-Genesis[edit]

On both his Arctic and Antarctic expeditions Professor Tim Noakes, a sports scientist from the University of Cape Town, recorded Pugh's ability to raise his core body temperature by nearly 2 °C in anticipation of entering the freezing water.[12][13] He coined the phrase "anticipatory thermo-genesis" (the creation of heat before an event).[14][15] This phenomenon had not been noted in any other human. Noakes argues it is a Pavlovian response to years of cold-water swimming, while Pugh believes it is a response to fear.[16][17][18]

World Winter Swimming Championships[edit]

In 2006 Pugh challenged Russia's top cold-water swimmers to a 500-metre race at the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland. He easily won the gold medal, beating Russian Champion Alexander Brylin by over 100 metres and the bronze medalist Nefatov Vladimir by 125 metres.

"Holy Grail" of swimming[edit]

In 2006 Pugh achieved the "Holy Grail" of swimming by becoming the first person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans of the world. His five swims were :

Environmental swims[edit]

River Thames[edit]

In 2006, he became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames. He undertook the swim to draw attention to the severe drought in England and the dangers of global warming. The 325 km (202 mi) swim took him 21 days to complete. The upper stretch of the river had stopped flowing due to the drought, forcing Pugh to run the first 42 km (26 mi) of the river.

While swimming through London, Pugh exited the water and made a visit to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street to call on the United Kingdom to move towards a low carbon economy. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister introduced the Climate Change Bill to Parliament.


In February 2007 Pugh became the first person to swim across the width of the Maldives. He undertook the swim to raise awareness about the effect of climate change on low-lying islands in the world. The 140 km (87 mi) swim took 10 days to complete.

North Pole[edit]

In July 2007 Pugh undertook the first long-distance swim across the Geographic North Pole. The 1 km (0.62 mi) swim, across an open patch of sea, in minus 1.7 °C (29 °F) water, took 18 minutes and 50 seconds to complete. Jørgen Amundsen, the great-grandnephew of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, paced Pugh by skiing alongside him during the swim.[19]

The swim coincided with the lowest coverage of Arctic sea ice ever recorded.

Mount Everest[edit]

Pugh completing a 1km swim across a glacial lake on Mount Everest

In May 2010 Pugh swam across Lake Pumori, a glacial lake on Mount Everest, to highlight the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the impact the reduced water supply will have on world peace.[20] Millions of people from India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal rely on the water, which flows from the Himalayan glaciers. The 1 km (0.62 mi) swim, at an altitude of 5,300 metres, in 2 °C water (35 °F),[21] took 22 minutes and 51 seconds to complete.

The Seven Seas[edit]

In August 2014, Pugh undertook the first long-distance swim in all the Seven Seas to campaign for more Marine Protected Areas in the region. The swims took place in the following locations:

Afterwards Pugh wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times that he had "seriously underestimated the urgency" of the issue he undertook the swim for, noting that he saw "no sharks, no whales, no dolphins" and "no fish longer than 30 centimeters".[22]

English Channel[edit]

In July and August 2018, Pugh swam the entire length of the English Channel – the second person ever to do so after Ross Edgley completed the feat a month before during his 1,780-mile circumnavigation swim around Great Britain.[23][24] He left Land's End in Cornwall on 12 July and arrived in Dover on 29 August, after 49 days at sea. He swam between 10 and 20 kilometres each day in order to cover the distance. Pugh swam the 528 kilometres (328 miles) to call for 30% of oceans to be protected by 2030. He was greeted on landing at Shakespeare Beach by UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who described him as a "modern day hero" and a "brilliant champion for marine conservation zones".[25][26]


Pugh attempting to kayak to the North Pole in 2008

In September 2008, Pugh, accompanied by a team aboard a ship where he slept, attempted to kayak the 1,200 km from Svalbard, across the Arctic Ocean, to the North Pole, but the team abandoned the effort 135 km from the start.[27] The aim was to further highlight the melting sea ice. The expedition coincided with some scientists predicting that the North Pole could be free of sea-ice in the summer of 2008, for the first time in thousands of years.[28] Pugh stated that despite several attempts, they were unable to find a gap in the ice. In his autobiography Pugh wrote:

"Ironically, global warming played no small part in undermining the entire expedition. We believed that the greater melting of summer ice would open up large areas of sea and allow us to paddle north at good speed. What we did not fully appreciate was that to the north of us there was a widespread melting of sea ice off the coast of Alaska and the New Siberian Islands and the ice was being pushed south towards us ... The evidence of climate change was stark. Fourteen months before I'd sailed north and I'd seen a preponderance of multi-year ice about three metres thick north of Spitsbergen, but this time most of the ice was just a metre thick."[29]

Public speaking[edit]

Pugh has twice spoken at the TED Global Conference and is described on their website as a "master story-teller".[30] The Financial Times reported that his speech at TEDGlobal in 2010 was "the perfect TED talk".[31]

And his speech on environmental leadership at the 2008 Business Innovation Forum Conference in the USA was voted as one of the "7 Most Inspiring Videos on the Web" by Mashable, the social media guide.[32]

Pugh has addressed the World Economic Forum at their annual meeting in Davos. He also gave the keynote addresses at Coca-Cola's 125th anniversary in 2011, Lloyd's Agency Network's 200th anniversary in 2011, and Swiss Re's 150th anniversary in 2013.[33]

Environmental campaigning[edit]

Pugh with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

During his youth Pugh visited many National Parks in South Africa, following his father's desire to teach him to love and respect nature after what he had witnessed whilst serving in the Royal Navy.[34] His father was present at the first British atomic bomb test in 1952 and a number of subsequent tests.

In 2003 Pugh left his maritime law practice to campaign full-time for the protection of the oceans. He often addresses heads of state and business leaders on the topics of climate change, overfishing and pollution and the need for Marine Protected Areas and low-carbon economies.

In 2009, Pugh together with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu took the evidence of witnesses from across Africa on the effects of climate change at the Pan-African Climate and Poverty Hearings. The evidence was presented to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference.[35]

Polar Defense Project[edit]

In 2008 Pugh founded the Polar Defense Project to campaign for greater protection for the Arctic and a resolution of the maritime boundary disputes. In 2009 it won the Best Project for the Environment at the inaugural Beyond Sport Awards.[36]

BP oil disaster[edit]

Pugh was outspoken on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, calling for the criminal prosecution of top BP executives in a feature in Business Day.[37]

Fracking for gas in the Karoo[edit]

Pugh opposes fracking for gas in the Karoo region of South Africa.[38] He made a public speech to Royal Dutch Shell in 2011 titled "Standing up to Goliath".

Plastic pollution[edit]

In 2018, Pugh was listed as the third-most influential person in the world discussing how to tackle plastic pollution on social media.[39]


Pugh has appeared on numerous TV shows including Good Morning America, Jay Leno,[40] Richard & Judy, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart[41] and BBC Breakfast. He has also been featured by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Vital Signs on CNN,[42] ADN on France 2, Carte Blanche and Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.[43]

In 2009 Pugh starred in Robson Green's Wild Swimming Adventure where he trained the English actor to swim across the icy waters of Llyn Llydaw, a lake on Snowdon in Wales.[44]

In 2013 he appeared on the front of The Big Issue holding a northern rockhopper penguin in an issue dedicated to ocean issues.[45]


In 2010 Pugh's autobiography "Achieving the Impossible" was published by Simon & Schuster. It quickly became a No. 1 best-seller.[46]

In 2013 Pugh wrote a second book entitled "21 Yaks and a Speedo". The title is a reference to his swim on Mt. Everest. The book is a collection of 21 short stories about his expeditions and the lessons he has learnt from them. It was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. The Financial Times described the book as "compelling"[47] and Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said "The book made me want to stand a little taller."[48]


Achim Steiner appointing Pugh as UN Patron of the Oceans

Personal life[edit]

In 2009 Pugh married Antoinette Malherbe, whom he met at school.[62]

Pugh is a descendant of Baptist missionary William Carey. His father's cousin, Carey Heydenrych, participated in the "Great Escape" from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III during the Second World War.[63][64]


  1. ^ Millward, Adam (23 May 2020). "Real-Life Aqua Man". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  2. ^ "Pioneer Swimmer Lewis Pugh Unveiled as UN Environment Programme Patron of the Oceans". United Nations Environment Programme. June 2013. Archived from the original on 29 June 2013. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  3. ^ "UN hails Lewis Pugh's 'Speedo diplomacy' for helping to protect the Antarctic". www.independent.co.uk. October 2016. Archived from the original on 14 June 2022. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  4. ^ "What speedos and polar bears teach us about the lost art of negotiating". World Economic Forum. November 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  5. ^ "World's Largest Marine Protected Area declared in Antarctica". BBC News. October 2016. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  6. ^ "UCT appoints Lewis Pugh as an Adjunct Professor". UCT. May 2017. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
  7. ^ Bannerman, Lucy (29 August 2018). "Lewis Pugh: I swam the entire length of Channel but where were the fish?". The Times. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  8. ^ Todd Pitock (29 October 2007). "The Ice Bear Cometh". Forbes. Retrieved 24 August 2008.
  9. ^ "Lewis Pugh Honored by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame". The Daily News of Open Water Swimming. October 2012. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
  10. ^ "Press FAQs" (PDF). lweispugh.com. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 June 2019. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  11. ^ Caroline Christie (2 October 2019). "What it feels like to swim in sub-zero waters". The Economist 1843 Magazine.
  12. ^ Dr James Butcher Phd (December 2005). "Profile: Lewis Gordon Pugh – Polar Swimmer". The Lancet. Retrieved 1 December 2005.
  13. ^ Tim Noakes; Jonathan Dugas; et al. (2009). "Body temperatures during three long-distance polar swims". Journal of Thermal Biology 2009, 34 (1) : 23–31.
  14. ^ Andrew Berg (May 2006). "What It Takes: Lewis Gordon Pugh". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 24 May 2006. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  15. ^ Duncan Graham-Rowe (February 2009). "Superhuman; The Secrets of the Ice Man". New Scientist. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  16. ^ "A Freezing Swim to Call Attention to Warming Waters". The New York Times. August 2017. Retrieved 1 August 2017.
  17. ^ "An Ice Cold fight Against Warmer Climate". NRK. August 2017. Retrieved 12 August 2017.
  18. ^ "How I do What I do". Lewis Pugh. August 2017. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  19. ^ "Lewis Pugh swims the North Pole". TED. September 2009. Retrieved 5 August 2011.
  20. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (December 2009). "Forthcoming Expeditions". Lewis Gordon Pugh's website. Archived from the original on 4 October 2009. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  21. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2010). "Expeditions, Everest". Lewis Gordon Pugh's website. Archived from the original on 22 July 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  22. ^ "Swimming through Garbage". The New York Times. September 2014. Retrieved 28 September 2014.
  23. ^ "CSA congratulate Lewis Pugh on "The Long Swim"". Channel Swimming Association. September 2018. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  24. ^ "First Person To Swim The Length of The English Channel". Guinness World Records. August 2018. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  25. ^ "Endurance Swimmer Lewis Pugh Completes English Channel Challenge". BBC News. August 2018. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  26. ^ "The Long Swim Lewis Pugh's daily blog". Sky News. August 2018. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  27. ^ Caroline Drees (6 September 2008). "Explorer kayaks to 1,000 km from N.Pole". Reuters. Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  28. ^ Alan Duke (27 June 2008). "North Pole Could Be Ice-Free This Summer, Scientists Say". CNN. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  29. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2010). "Achieving the Impossible. A Fearless Leader. A Fragile Earth". Simon & Schuster.
  30. ^ "A mind-shifting Mt. Everest swim". TED. August 2010. Retrieved 3 August 2010.
  31. ^ "Conference of cool". FT.com. July 2010. Archived from the original on 11 December 2022. Retrieved 23 July 2010.
  32. ^ Josh Catone (November 2009). "7 of the Most Inspiring Videos". Mashable. Retrieved 8 November 2009.
  33. ^ Lewis Pugh (December 2013). "Lewis Pugh Speaking". Lewis Pugh's website. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  34. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (July 2009). "Time to Believe". Speech at TEDGlobal 2009. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  35. ^ "Pan-African Climate Change and Poverty Hearing". Oryx Media. October 2009. Archived from the original on 13 September 2010. Retrieved 5 October 2009.
  36. ^ Beyond Sport (July 2009). "2009 Winners". Beyond Sport. Retrieved 8 July 2009.
  37. ^ Gary Lemke (7 June 2010). "Going to the Extreme". Business Day. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  38. ^ Lewis Pugh (7 June 2013). "21 Yaks and a Speedo". Jonathan Ball Publishing.
  39. ^ Joe Fields (26 March 2018). "Tackling plastic pollution. Top 100 influencers, brands and publication". Onalytica. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  40. ^ "Show 3412". NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. July 2007. Retrieved 27 July 2007.
  41. ^ Jon Stewart (July 2007). "Lewis Pugh". Comedy Central. Retrieved 31 July 2007.
  42. ^ Mark Tutton (February 2009). "Lewis Pugh: The Human Polar Bear". CNN. Retrieved 25 February 2009.
  43. ^ Bernard Goldberg (April 2006). "An Uncommon Man". HBO. Retrieved 11 April 2006.
  44. ^ Robson Green (December 2009). "Wild Swimming". Robson Green's website. Archived from the original on 7 December 2009. Retrieved 15 December 2009.
  45. ^ The Big Issue (25 September – 24 October 2013). "Turning the Tide". Vol. 17, no. 213. The Big Issue. Retrieved 25 September 2013.
  46. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (June 2009). "Book". Lewis Gordon Pugh's website. Retrieved 28 June 2009.
  47. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2013). "Book". Jonathan Ball Publishing. Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  48. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2013). "Book". Jonathan Ball Publishing. Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  49. ^ RSGS. "Mungo Park Medal". Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  50. ^ Steven Munatones (December 2018). "Ice Swimming Hall of Fame members announced". Daily News of Open Water Swimming. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  51. ^ Albi Modise (October 2017). "SAB and Department of Environmental Affairs announces Media and Environmentalist of the Year Awards". Department of Environmental Affairs. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  52. ^ Skoda UK (May 2017). "The Alternative Rich List". Skoda UK. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  53. ^ The Sunday Times (UK) (May 2017). "The Alternative Rich List". The Sunday Times. The Sunday Times (UK).
  54. ^ Times Live (May 2017). "Ocean swimmer Lewis Pugh dives into academic maelstrom as UCT law prof". Times Live. Retrieved 17 May 2017.
  55. ^ The Herald (September 2015). "Round-up: Plymouth University hands out honorary degrees". The Herald. Retrieved 25 September 2015.[permanent dead link]
  56. ^ Men's Journal (July 2015). "The 50 Most Adventurous Men in the World". Men's Journal. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  57. ^ National Geographic (November 2014). "Adventurers of the Year 2014/2015". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 7 November 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  58. ^ The Daily News of Open Water Swimming (October 2012). "Lewis Pugh Honored by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame". The Daily News of Open Water Swimming. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
  59. ^ Archive Team (December 2010). "International Swimming Hall of Fame Announces Induction Class of 2011". Swimming World Magazine. Retrieved 1 December 2010.
  60. ^ Office of the President of South Africa (December 2009). "Presidency unveils National Orders recipients". The Presidency, Republic of South Africa. Retrieved 2 December 2009.[dead link]
  61. ^ Beyond Sport (July 2009). "2009 Winners". Beyond Sport. Retrieved 8 July 2009.
  62. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2010). "Achieving the Impossible. A Fearless Leader. A Fragile Earth". Simon & Schuster.
  63. ^ Lewis Gordon Pugh (May 2010). "Achieving the Impossible. A Fearless Leader. A Fragile Earth". Simon & Schuster.
  64. ^ Lewis Pugh (September 2017). "Where Is Our Great Escape?". Lewis Pugh. Retrieved 8 September 2017.

External links[edit]