Image by Michael Edwards

Lewis Pugh set to swim supra-glacial lake in East Antarctica

Lewis Pugh aims to become the first person in history to swim one kilometre in a meltwater ‘supra-glacial’ lake in East Antarctica on the 22 January. In doing so, Pugh hopes to highlight the growing climate emergency and also lobby for a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in East Antarctica.


Image by Michael Edwards

No stranger to cold water swimming, Pugh has completed multiple swims in Antarctica, the Arctic and Mount Everest in nothing but Speedos, goggles and a swimming cap. However, Pugh believes that this will be his most challenging swim to date as these supra-glacial lakes can form cracks in the ice and thereby empty out very rapidly, adding additional risk in an already extreme environment.

Pugh and the supra-glacial lake

After completing his cold water training in the Outer Hebrides, he spoke to The Herald and explained that the water temperature of the supra-glacial lake will be a mind-numbing 0°C, while the air temperature could be around -30°C.

According to Pugh, over 65 000 of these supra-glacial lakes have been discovered on the East Antarctic ice sheet alone by University of Durham scientists. As global heating continues unabated, these meltwater lakes are likely to increase in number.

Accompanying him will be Slava Fetisov, the Russian ice hockey legend and two-time Olympic champion, regarded as the best defenseman in history. Fetisov is the UN Patron of the Polar Regions and the pair met after Pugh’s swims in the Ross Sea in 2015.

Pugh will also be joined by José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica and brother of Christiana Figueres who helped broker the 2015 draft Paris Climate Agreement. Both Figueres and Fetisov will be on the ice supporting Lewis during his swim.

“When I breathe right I will see Slava, when I breathe left, José.”

Why is Pugh completing this swim?

The aim is to create an MPA in East Antarctica, following on the back of eight years of negotiations. Pugh hopes this swim will encourage recalcitrant nations to agree to protect one of the most pristine and fragile ecosystems in the world. Pugh writes in his blog that:

“Under international law, 25 nations plus the EU need to agree on any measures to protect the continent. Twenty-three nations and the EU agree. Just Russia and China still need to be persuaded.”

Pugh’s swim comes as famed British naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, warned that “the moment of crisis” has arrived – referring to the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis. After countless years of failing to act, politicians will once more meet for the annual COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow at the end of the year, which Pugh will also attend.

The speed of our changing climate, leaves less time for drastic action to change course and Pugh is prepared to go the extra kilometre to raise awareness and inspire leaders to act:

“Postponing decisive action is not an option any more. The stakes are now too high.”