The First Man to Swim Across the Seven Seas

Credit: Kelvin Trautman

Lewis Pugh is an extreme swimmer with a mission. Wearing nothing but a Speedo and a cap, he has plunged into near-freezing waters at the North Pole and the Antarctic, and crossed a glacial lake on Mount Everest. Along the way, he set a bunch of world records and brought greater attention to how climate change, pollution, and overfishing have impacted the world's oceans. This summer, Pugh became the first person to complete long-distance swims in all seven seas — from England to Oman.

Though he planned the attempt after reading that 90 percent of the Mediterranean is overfished, he was astonished by the emptiness that surrounded him. "The most threatened seas are around the ancient world," Pugh says. "But I never thought in four weeks I wouldn't see a dolphin or a whale or a shark."

Fortified by hard-boiled eggs, Pugh swam at least six miles (the official minimum for a long-distance swim) in each body of water — the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian, and North. More often than not, the water was littered with car tires, shoes, cans, and plastic bags. At one point in the North Sea, he was forced to take a break when he became so ill from pollution in the water that he vomited for two days. "I thought I had Ebola," he says. "It was that bad." He finished his trip with a 40-mile swim in the North Sea, ending in the Thames in London.

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In 1987, a 17-year-old Pugh made his first major swim — from South Africa's Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, to Cape Town. The frigid water hardly deterred him. "It was a wonderful feeling," he says. "You feel so invigorated and alive." He spent six years working as a maritime lawyer in London. Then a decade ago, after a trip to the melting Arctic, he decided to devote himself full-time to swimming and the environment. "I saw these places change," he says. "I didn't want to be working in a big London law firm. I wanted to be a voice for the sharks, whales, polar bears, and all of us."

The U.S. has made recent strides toward protecting its waters: In September, President Obama designated 490,000 square miles of ocean (the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) off-limits to dumping and commercial fishing. But today, less than 3 percent of the world's oceans is protected. "It's a shocking indictment of policy leaders," Pugh says. "This isn't just about our children or grandchildren. This is about us."