S3E3: Lewis Pugh: A Deep Dive into the Ocean Crisis

April 13, 2023
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A thought-provoking conversation with Lewis Pugh, a renowned endurance swimmer and UNEP Patron of the Oceans.

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On the occasion of World Environment Day, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop engages in a thought-provoking conversation with Lewis Pugh, a renowned endurance swimmer and UNEP Patron of the Oceans. From plastic pollution to endangered penguins and disappearing coral reefs, Lewis recounts the daring swims that exposed him to the devastation that lurks beneath the serene surface of our seas.

Throughout their discussion, a resounding message echoes: global unity and immediate action are needed to safeguard our seas and preserve the delicate balance of our planet.


Makhtar Diop: Hello and welcome to Creative Development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop and I'm the managing director of the International Finance Corporation. In honor of World Environment Day, I have the pleasure of welcoming a very special guest to my podcast, British South African endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh. Lewis is a trailblazing ocean advocate and UN Patron of the Oceans. From the North Pole to Mount Everest and the Antarctic Sea. He has pioneered more swims around famous landmarks than any other swimmer in history. His aim is to protect our planet’s threatened oceans by drawing attention to their plight. It's a pleasure to meet you Lewis. Welcome to the show.

Lewis Pugh: Thank you.

Makhtar: Lewis, you were born in England, but moved to South Africa at a young age. It was there at 17 you participated in your first endurance swim. And it was quite impressive because you swam from Cape Town to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and others had been imprisoned during apartheid. Tell us what this swim means for you.

Lewis: Yeah, so I remember that first swim, literally as if it was yesterday. So it was the 1st of May 1987. I was just 17 years old. I'd had my first proper swimming lesson. So I learned how to swim when I was a little boy in England, but proper swimming lessons came much later in life. And one day, I was looking out over the horizon, I saw Robben Island, and a friend of mine had swam it and I just decided I wanted to swim the other way around. So, from Robben Island back to Cape Town, I just remember all the hassles getting permission because it was a prison. And constantly being on the phone as a young 17-year-old trying to get permission, eventually I got permission. And it's something that you never ever forget, you know, being taken onto the island by white prison guards all carrying weapons. And then they took me along the beach to where I would start and on the beach were prisoners, cleaning kelp off the beach, all black political prisoners. And I took my clothes off, I got into the sea. And I started swimming. And the first thing I felt was cold. I mean, and I was very, very thin in those days. Anyway, for the first hour, it was hard. By the end of the second hour, I was absolutely frozen. Two and a half hours in and the crawl had stopped and then it was breaststroke. And finally, after three hours, I put my feet down on the beach in Cape Town, and my father was there and my mother was there and it was… Sadly my father died shortly afterwards. But I mean, of all the swims I've done. So 36 years of swimming, the one which brought the most amount of joy to me when I put my feet down there, and I'd done my first swim - was certainly that Robben Island swim. But to put it in a political context, this was 1987, it was still a number of years before apartheid finally ended. And those political prisoners, some of them were there until the early 1990s. And then 1994, the big change occurred, and Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa.

Makhtar: Lewis its interesting because water tells us a lot of things. The ocean tells us a lot of things. You used the ocean to tell a political story, the way apartheid was affecting people. Today, you are telling us about the survival of human being. Tell us what do you see in the waters when you swim, these long swims; what do you hear inside yourself? What do you feel you want to share with all of us?

Lewis: I mean, perhaps I can give a practical example. So, I mean, so 36 years of swimming, and I’ve swam in every ocean of the world now. But the biggest changes I've seen have been up in the polar regions. And back in 2007, I did the first swim across the North Pole. And so I took a ship and and sailed right to the North Pole. And I remember standing there on the ship and I remember looking out over this icy terrain. The water is so cold. I mean the water is minus 1.7 degrees centigrade. But the reason why I'm there is to tell a story about how the world is actually heating up. Because everywhere there were these huge open patches of sea and I remember getting off the ship, standing on the ice and about to dive into the water and as I say the water is minus 1.7. It’s unbelievably cold and no human has ever done a swim in anywhere close to this water temperature before. And it's at that moment you ask yourself, you know, why are you here? And for me, it was a very, very simple reason. I was trying - through one swim - to shine a light about what is happening in the high Arctic. Because what's happening there with the melting of the sea ice will impact literally every single person on this planet, every single future generation, and obviously the whole of the animal kingdom. And so that's what I tried to do with these swims, to shine a light on what is happening in remote, often remote places, and why they're important to everybody on this planet.

Makhtar: When you swim in those oceans where you see so much plastic, what does it bring to you?

Lewis: Profound sadness, profound sadness. And I say that because I'm seeing it everywhere in the oceans. Now I'm seeing it high up in the Arctic, down in Antarctica, I'm seeing it on the surface. I'm seeing it right at the bottom of the sea. I'm seeing it absolutely everywhere. It is ubiquitous. I remember, as a young boy, I just don't remember any plastic pollution on our beaches. And so this has happened on my watch. In my lifetime. This has happened. And people asked me, you know, what can I do? And you know, we have got to turn this tide on plastic pollution. And we got to turn it very, very quickly. I've seen it on the beaches I've seen everywhere, as I say, but I'm also seeing the impacts on wildlife. I have been at autopsies where they've opened up birds caught far deep deep in the North Atlantic, and you open up their stomachs. And inside, you see this plastic, green, yellow, red plastic, which have literally killed these animals. I've seen it with whales. And so it's not just unsightly, to walk along a beach and see pollution all the way along a beach, but it's also killing wildlife. As we're speaking now, there's a big conference taking place in Paris trying to get a global agreement on plastic pollution, I'm keeping my fingers crossed, because this story has been going on for far far too long now.

Makthar: Now there was a very good report released by UNEP and other institution about the impact of marine plastic on climate change and other life- threatening activities. Are you hopeful that in June in Paris, we will have a legally-binding agreement?

Lewis: I always say that hope is a dangerous word. Because you know, hope can lead to an abdication of responsibility. You hope that some other country is going to cut its carbon emissions, you hope that some other company is going to stop using, you know, plastic on absolutely everything, you hope that some other person is, you know, is going to pick up your plastic pollution. We need to earn hope. We need to take action every single day. The consequences of not taking action now are so serious. And you get the environment which you pay for. And so ultimately, the only way we're going to be able to solve this plastic pollution crisis and the climate crisis is by investing, is by spending the money on solutions to try and ensure that we keep our rivers clean, that we don't have plastic just pouring down into rivers and into our oceans. So we got to pay for waste management, we've got to ask the public, please, you've got to use your voice now to ensure that your voice is heard.

Makhtar: At IFC, we make it a priority, actually. We are promoting the concept of the blue economy. And we are part of a coalition to support the blue economy alongside UNEP and other organizations. One of the things that we are doing, for instance, is issuing some thematic bonds around blue economy to encourage companies, banks, financial institutions to support activities that are protecting the sea, including reducing the use of marine plastic. And we are investing in some startups, which are bringing some interesting solutions in addressing marine plastic. But you are right, it’s not hope, it is actions. What actions do you see that we can take together to convince the rest of the world of the crisis that we are facing around marine plastics.

Lewis: You know when you go down to down to a beach. And you look out over the sea, and the sea and especially if you go down at sunset, and the sea just looks absolutely beautiful. I mean, I think that's what most people see, when they see the ocean, they see something which is vast and beautiful. But it's when you put your head underneath the surface and you start seeing the impact which humans are having on the oceans. But it's the impact which it is having on wildlife, which is so incredibly serious. And I'm saying to members of the public, please you've got to use your voices. Now. You've got to urge, demand action from companies that they provide you with alternatives. When it comes to countries, I really, really hope now, because we've been kicking this can down the road, I really hope now that we can get an agreement in Paris. Every generation.. The issues which every generation face are different. But the defining issue of our generation is going to be the health of our planet. And sorting out plastic pollution is going to be one of the major major issues which we as a generation now have to solve.

Makhtar: You have a foundation, and in your foundation you have one of the objectives is to ensure that 30% of our oceans are properly protected by 2030. So tell us a little bit about your foundation.

Lewis: We created this foundation, because we wanted to, you know, really make a difference in creating marine protected areas. And one of the big projects which we did was; I did a swim along the length of the English Channel. So the width is 32 kilometers, but nobody had ever swam the length, which isn't 32 kilometers, but it's 528 kilometers. And so I swam all the way from Land's End, all the way to Dover, so the full length. And during this journey, I was urging the British government to properly protect the waters around the United Kingdom. At the time, the only fully protected areas were seven square kilometers. In the rest, you could drill for oil, you could drill for gas, industrial fishing fleets could come along and take all the fish, the Royal Navy and other navies could do gunnery exercises. But just in seven square kilometers, nature was left on its own. And so I did this swim and every single day, I was talking to the British government via the media and saying we need to properly protect this. Well anyway, 49 days later, I finally arrived in Dover at the end of the swim. And there to meet me meet me was the environment minister. And he made a pledge there on the beach in Dover. He said, we're going to commit to protecting 30% of the world's oceans now by 2030. So this is what we call about 30 by 30. And so, the United Kingdom then announced this in the General Assembly a month later and urged other nations to join them in this endeavor, it was amazing. So since then, 126 nations have committed to this 30 by 30. I could never have dreamt that one swim could impact, you know, literally over half of the world's nations. But a commitment as you know, a commitment is one thing, but action is a very, very different thing. And so now we've, we are nearly four years into this program, we've got another six years to deliver on it, scientists are saying to us that we need to be protecting at least 30% by 2030. And so, it's exciting. And the role of my foundation now is to get these governments and other governments who haven't committed try and get them across the line, and try to get those 30% the world's oceans properly protected now by 2030. It's an enormous endeavor, but it's one which myself and my foundation are absolutely committed to working to achieve.

Makhtar: I’m coming from myself I grew up also in Dakar, I saw the water every day in my life. I know also what is coastal-erosion because I saw areas I was playing when I was a kid disappearing, now totally full of plastic. And fish is our main food in my part of Senegal. So, we are very concerned also about what you are eating every day because of the marine pollution. When you're were preparing for COP27 you did a 123 kilometers swim between Saudi Arabia and Egypt to urge people to look at this topic. What do you plan to do for COP 28?

Lewis: Cop 27... I mean, to swim across the Red Sea, it was.. It is such an amazing sea and the Coral in the Red Sea is so so precious. And so every single day, there I was with my head in the water swimming from Saudi all the way to Egypt. And the coral is so beautiful. I mean, the reds and the blues and the purples and, the fish, the tropical fish, the colors of these fish and then the manta rays and the sharks and the turtles. It's beautiful. But it is the ground zero of the climate crisis. So what the scientists are saying to us is if we heat the planet by 1.5 degrees centigrade, then we will lose 70% of the world's coral. If we heat the planet by two degrees, we lose virtually all of the world's coral. And currently we're on track for way past that. We're on track for 2.7 degrees centigrade. And so that was my message in Sharm el Sheikh which is on the Red Sea which is world leaders please; when you come to the Red Sea, please put your head under the water because if you're standing there in Sharm el Sheikh is just hot and it’s beautiful desert, okay, but when you put your head under the water, you see life and life is so precious. And we run the risk for the first time in human history now, to lose an entire ecosystem - if we don't get a grip on the climate crisis. Now, it's hard to beat something like that, for COP28, but trust me, every single year, we do a really, really big swim. And I've got the my biggest swim of my life, which will be taking place shortly. And then straight after that, I'll be going to COP 28 with that message.

Makhtar: Absolutely. I think when you talk also to our friends from the Caribbean, and they see the coral disappearing and the impact it can have on everything they're doing in the Caribbean. You see, there's something similar happening around Sharm El Sheikh and around the Indian Ocean, and the fact that the water is the one which is capturing the extra heat that we are creating by increasing emission is absorbed by the sea and killing the life that we have in the sea. I was reading more recently that even the pattern of some sharks, and other larger mammals have been totally affected by the rising temperature. The discussion of biodiversity should really include what is happening in the seas. We will be going together to COP28, I would love to sit with you. And other people who are passionate about what is happening in the oceans to try to not only carry the message on the urgency of doing something, but more importantly, finding solutions to slow down the downward spirals that we are in right now. And I think your voice in that discussion would be tremendous for someone who is seeing everyday what is happening is a sees, explaining to people.

Lewis: No, thank you so much. I mean, on a very practical level. Let me just give you one short story. I mentioned that my first swim was from Robben Island to Cape Town. One of the things I remember about that swim was standing on the beach about to dive in the water and behind me with all these African penguins, to there's a beach there with all these incredible African penguins. And the noise of them is just wonderful. And I love penguins, you know, I spent a lot of time with penguins. Anyway, I went back there recently, and that penguin colony now is on the edge, there are very few penguins left there. I found two, two penguins. And what the scientists are saying to us is that now they will be functionally extinct on the west coast of South Africa and Namibia, within the next 10 years unless we take urgent action. And it's the same three things which have come together, and you see it all over the world. The first, obviously, is the climate crisis. And because of the climate crisis, prey species are moving further away to get to food. And so the penguins are having to swim so far to be able to get the food and come back to come back and feed their chicks. The second thing that's happening is there's so much fishing, which takes place, fishing in competition with the wildlife. And then the third thing which happens is you can get a big oil spill, or you get plastic pollution. With an oil spill, an oil spill can come along and literally wipe out a whole penguin colony. And the reason why that oil is there is because we haven't transited from a fossil fuel economy. So if we are able to do that, and we have to do that to solve the climate crisis, and the impact on the on penguins is going to be is going to be tremendous. Those penguins which are so emblematic of life, in and around Cape Town, they provide so many jobs to so many people, tourists come from all over the world there to see those penguins. We run the risk now of losing all of them, unless we tackle the climate crisis, unless we tackle the biodiversity crisis unless we tackle also the plastic crisis. All three of those have to be tackled now, very, very quickly.

Makhtar: An excellent message for us to end the conversation. Working on these three fronts, bringing the financial resources to work on these three fronts, giving the incentive for people to move on this will be the job that we all have before us. And you can count on the IFC, on us and other friends of the ocean to push this agenda forward. And I think COP28 would be a good opportunity to do that. But thank you very much. And as the youngster, say ‘respect for what you're doing’, because it's quite impressive. Changing the view of a lot of people on what we don't see, which is life inside the oceans. So thank you so much. And I look forward to see you very soon in Dubai. And please don't hesitate to stop by when you are in DC next time.

Lewis: Thank you so, so much. Thank you.