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Meet The Polar Bear

Meet The Polar Bear

Lewis Gordon Pugh booked his place amongst the great explorers of all time this week by becoming the first man to swim at the North Pole. Mark Steer caught up with him via satellite phone on his homeward journey aboard a Russian icebreaker.

At precisely 18 minutes and 50 seconds past two on the morning of the 15th July, an ex-London lawyer pulled himself from the sub-zero waters of the Arctic Ocean having swum across the North Pole.

Lewis Gordon Pugh, nicknamed the Polar Bear, undertook the kilometre-long feat to visibly demonstrate the devastating impacts of climate change on our planet.

“There was no fannying around,” he sets me straight. “That shower was really hot!”
“It was extremely dangerous and a very frightening experience,” Pugh tells me, “Physically I probably could have lasted for longer, but it was very, very hard.”

“Before entering the water my core body temperature was 38.4 degrees Celsius. By the time I finished the swim it had gone down to 36.5 degrees and I think it bottomed out at 35oC. However, after my swim in the Antarctic in 2005 my core temperature dropped to 33.4 degrees.”

Clinically, severe hypothermia kicks in when your body temperature drops below 35oC, but through years of rigorous training and exposure to extreme cold, Pugh can survive long enough to get to a hot shower.

Was the shower properly hot, or did it just feel hot because he was so cold, I wonder. “There was no fannying around,” he sets me straight. “That shower was really hot!”

Why the expedition was necessary

It’s almost 60 years since man first set foot at the North Pole; it was unimaginable then that there would ever be open water. In the last five to ten years the sea ice has been melting further and further each summer, opening up cracks in the ice that run right across the very top of world.

Pugh undertook his extreme challenge to highlight the dramatic impact global warming is having on polar regions. “I want to make everyone a bit more aware of the issues,” he says, “but mostly I want to give the politicians a bit of kick."

Subzero Arctic waters: "Very dark and very, very frightening."
Click image to enlarge
In December world leaders will meet in Indonesia to make plans for the post-Kyoto period. The targets set at the Kyoto conference in 1997 expire in 2012. Pugh hopes that he can help persuade world leaders to pledge dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions at the next conference. Upcoming meetings with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the President of the Maldives are hopefully just the first step.

Pugh spent fifteen years growing up in South Africa. His light Southern African twang becomes steelier as he talks about his past experiences of politicians. “I can say that the President of the Maldives is the only world leader who truly grasps the entire issue of global warming.

“The Maldives are the world’s lowest-lying islands and are right on the front line. They are threatened by rising water levels and an increased number of tropical storms in the Indian Ocean.

“They feel powerless to do anything. It’s a shame considering they produce such a small amount of CO2 that they are being the hardest hit.”

This isn’t the first time that Pugh has taken on challenges to highlight the problems of global warming. Last year he swam the length of the River Thames to highlight the problems of drought in the UK and in February he became the first man to swim the breadth of the Maldives – a 140km trip that took ten days. And there’s more in store.

“There’s definitely going to be more,” he says, “I don’t know what yet. The team and I have a few ideas, but we’ve got to sit down and bash them around properly.

“It’ll probably be something away from the oceans though. Maybe deserts – did you know that Australia is undergoing its worst ever drought. There’s also the problem of deforestation in the Amazon contributing to the rise in global CO2.”

Amundsens, past and present

Before moving to South Africa, Pugh spent the first ten years of his life growing up in Dorset, also the home of other great explorers such as Captain Scott, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh.

“Britain has a rich heritage of explorers,” he says, “The Dutch produced a lot of great painters, the Germans great musicians. I think there’s something in the British psyche that makes us want to push and break boundaries.”

However, it was the relative of a great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen the first man to lead a successful expedition to the South Pole, who encouraged Pugh through his current ordeal.

“I shook Jørgen Amundsen’s hand and then plunged into the sea. It was like jumping into a dark black hole. It was frightening. The pain was immediate and felt like my body was on fire. I was in excruciating pain from beginning to end and I nearly quit on a few occasions.

“I just kept on looking at Jørgen Amundsen skiing next to me, encouraging me. I will never give up in front of a Norwegian! Let alone a relative of Roald Amundsen.”

Amundsen wasn’t the only company Pugh had on his swim. A large ringed seal – a species which, like polar bears, relies on the sea ice – popped up and swam next to him for a while.

Scientists estimate that by 2040 there will be no more Arctic ice in summer, a prognosis that spells big trouble for species such as ringed seals and polar bears.

How does he do it?

'I just have time to ask whether he would ever swim the North Pole again. “Not a chance!” is the emphatic reply.'
Pugh has been the subject of great scientific interest for his unique ability to survive long periods in icy water that would kill anybody else within seconds. He is able to voluntarily raise his core body temperature before entering the water. “We think that it’s an ability related to our natural fear response, preparing the body for action,” he explains. “I just think that I’ve trained myself to harness it.”

He first realised he had this kind of ability when serving in the British army. “When you’re on manoeuvres in Wales it can get pretty cold. I seemed to deal with it a bit better than some of the others”. He has since gone on to become the only man to complete long-distance swims in every ocean on Earth.

As Pugh’s icebreaker slowly makes its way back towards Russia our telephone link begins to die. I just have time to ask whether he would ever swim the North Pole again. “Not a chance!” is the emphatic reply. “It was without doubt the hardest and most frightening swim of my life. I’m not getting back in there ever again.”

Meet other top personalities below or get to the coal face with our MySpace and Facebook groups.

- Body talk - Alice Roberts gets personal
- Paper talk - Roger Highfield fills us in
- All talk - Adam Hart Davies talks shop
- Fame talk - Jon Wood wins us over

Images courtesy of Lewis Gordon Pugh/Push Pictures

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11 Feb 2009
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