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How One Man’s Swim In Antarctic Waters Convinced The Russians To Save The Whales

British polar swimmer Lewis Pugh won over Russia to help secure a huge new marine reserve off the coast of Antarctica.

Posted on November 12, 2016, at 9:28 a.m. ET

Kelvin Trautman

After four years of failed votes, more than two dozen countries have unanimously agreed to create a marine wildlife sanctuary in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, home to hundreds of species of sea life, including whales, seals, and penguins, all threatened by fishing.

In previous years, the project had been blocked by China and Russia, concerned over the part of the treaty that would ban fishing in 72% of the Sea, a worry for their far-flung fishing boats that feed growing parts of their populations.

But the marine sanctuary was finally approved last month, thanks in large part to a publicity stunt by 46-year-old polar swimmer, Lewis Pugh. In 2015, Pugh made three swims in the 30-degree Fahrenheit Ross Sea — the “Polar Garden of Eden” — including a 382-yard dash that set a world record for southernmost bareskin swimming.

Although Pugh hails from the UK, this feat was perhaps most closely watched in Russia, a nation long enthralled with its Arctic frontier.

“You don’t need to tell Russians about cold water, they know what it is, it is almost a rite of passage to swim in cold water,” Pugh told BuzzFeed News.

Kelvin Trautman

The Russians already knew of Pugh for defeating their cold water champions in the 2006 World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland. A devoted ocean conservationist, he saw in his celebrity an opportunity to lobby for the Antarctic’s whales and penguins in Russia.

He flew straight from Antarctica to Moscow and embarked on a series of public and private events aimed at raising awareness of the southern continent. Russia and the West weren’t exactly getting along — Putin had recently taken over Crimea, and a Malaysian airliner that departed from Amsterdam had been shot down over Ukraine. (The Dutch government later concluded Russia had supplied the missile to Ukrainian separatists.)

“It was not the greatest moment in international relations, we really felt an effort was needed,” Pugh said.

To his surprise, Pugh’s arrival in Russia was celebrated by local news outlets and Russia’s RT network (which is funded by Putin’s government), primed by Russia’s admiration for cold water swimming. RT anchor Oksana Boyko speculated that Russian officials see themselves as “outdoorsy guys” who admired Pugh for his feats.

“Russians like courage. They like it when you put your body on the line for something,” Pugh said. “And they have this very proud history of polar exploration, so it all played together.”

Pugh, the United Nations Environment Programme's "Patron of the Oceans", met with Russian officials, gave interviews, and even wrote op-eds for Vladimir Putin’s personal magazine, VVP, widely read by state officials. In a savvy public relations move, he announced the Ross Sea was a “twin” sea to Russia’s long polluted Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and the focus of restoration efforts that once saw Putin himself examining its waters by mini-submarine. A visit to Lake Baikal “took the whole campaign to another level,” Pugh said, rating the Ross Sea on par with a Russian natural treasure in the public mind.

Pugh (left) with Russian hockey legend Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov (right).
Sergey Rybakov

Pugh (left) with Russian hockey legend Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov (right).

Pugh also made friends with Russian hockey legend Vyacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, part sports hero, part sports cheerleader for the country. “He’s the most popular person in Russia,” Pugh said, and the hockey star plays an official role in promoting youth sports and environmental activism nationwide. “From day one, he was very supportive. I can’t say enough about this man.”

The everyday Russians Pugh spoke to, he said, were always in favor of the sanctuary proposal, which covered some 600,000 square miles of the Ross Sea, making it the world’s largest protected area for marine life on the high seas.

But Russian officials didn’t get interested until August of this year, when Putin appointed a close ally, Sergei Ivanov, as special envoy for the environment. Putin declared 2017 a “year of ecology” for Russia, and Ivanov, a former defense minister, has spearheaded initiatives on that front, ranging from protecting Siberian Tigers to participation in the Paris Climate Change agreement.

In this desk-shuffling and move toward environmental diplomacy, the vote on the Ross Sea reserve shifted from Russia’s fishing minister to the new environmental leader, Ivanov, which helped thaw opposition. “Fisheries officials tend to see things through the lens of fishing, naturally,” Andrea Kavanagh, an ocean advocate with the Pew Charitable Trust, told BuzzFeed News.

Pew Charitable Trusts

These changes were well timed with Pugh’s series of swims and diplomatic trips to capitals of the 25 governments that control the Antarctic commission, a body established in 1959 at the height of the Cold War to peacefully oversee the southern continent, making decisions only by unanimous consent. Pugh lobbied for the reserve with diplomatic officials such as US Secretary of State John Kerry, who supported the reserve in discussions with his Russian counterparts.

“Lewis arrived at a moment when a lot of things came together, and his story was really helpful for getting the Russians to say, Why not protect Antarctica?” Kavanagh said.

A significant anniversary was also coming up: the 200th year since Russian admiral Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen discovered Antarctica. “The Russians wanted a voice at the table, to feel their views about the reserve were considered,” Pugh said.

An emerald rockcod in the Ross Sea.
John B. Weller, Courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts

An emerald rockcod in the Ross Sea.

China also came around to the idea, largely because of an amendment to the agreement to limit its renewal period to 35 years. If fishing stocks recover in the Ross Sea by then, their logic goes, then fishing could begin there again.

When the final approval came on October 28, Pugh was almost too exhausted to celebrate, wrung out by two years of what he called “speedo diplomacy.”

“I wanted to drink champagne with my friends,” he said. Instead he was captive in London for media interviews for two days, and then went home and slept.

He is delighted by the creation of the reserve, seeing it as a model for future high seas sanctuaries in territories governed by multiple nations — which includes about 45% of the oceans outside the 200-mile territorial range of any one country. And he is ready for 2051, when the Ross Sea sanctuary status is slated to come up for its renewal vote.

“I’ll be 81 then,” he said. “I promise I’ll put my speedo back on if I have to.”

Kelvin Trautman

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