Next week, 45-year-old Pugh will complete the first of five Antarctic swims wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos in waters where temperatures are expected to be around -1.7 degrees Celsius, the coldest saltwater can become before freezing.
Why? Well, Pugh is the United Nation’s Patron of the Oceans and is hoping to persuade the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to create a huge fishing-free zone in the area.
“This is a polar Garden of Eden,” he says of the Ross Sea, which is home to species like the Antarctic Toothfish, the Colossal Squid and the Emperor Penguin. There has been commercial fishing in the area since the mid-90s, but Pugh is pushing for a huge Marine Protected Area (MPA) put in place before the ecosystem is permanently affected.
Winning Russia round is key, as the country is currently chairing the CCAMLR – a group of 24 countries and the European Union.
While Pugh’s dream is for the whole of the Ross Sea to be closed to industrial fishing, he admits that it would be difficult to persuade certain countries to pull out entirely. A proposal for a part of the sea to be closed to fishing was put forward last year, but members of the CCAMLR could not come to an agreement as to its size.
Pugh is convinced, though, that Russian policymakers can be persuaded. “They have a huge interest and the country has invested a lot of money in science there. They don’t want to see the environment destroyed with a fishing boat that comes along and just hoovers everything up.”
The question remains, however, as to why Pugh is doing all this in a Speedo?
“I think it shows integrity,” says Pugh, who grew up in the UK and South Africa, training as a lawyer in Cape Town and later Jesus College, Cambridge. “Afterwards, when I’m meeting world leaders to discuss this, if I can say I’ve just done five swims in this sea in only Speedos, they will see that I really believe what I’m saying.”
Each of the five swims, spread across three weeks and ending on March 7, will see Pugh spend around 20 minutes in the water – but even this is enough time to do the body serious damage. Any longer could kill him.
“I know it sounds silly, but the difference between swimming in zero-degree and -1.7-degree water is like the difference between climbing Kilimanjaro and climbing K2. The pain really is exponential. Then there’s what might be in the water with you. Leopard Seals are absolutely terrifying: they have an enormous mouth, which they can open almost 180 degrees. They have razor sharp teeth and they let out this primeval hissing sound. When you hear that, you know you’re in trouble.”
But if this is enough to make the members of the CCAMLR come to an agreement, for Pugh it will all be worth it.