THE HUMAN POLAR BEAR
GETTING TO KNOW PURE CONFERENCE SPEAKER, LEWIS PUGH
It’s mere weeks until the auditorium at the Palais de Congrés begins filling with the excited buzz of PUREists reunited, ready to find inspiration at the acclaimed PURE conference. Three legendary speakers will be waiting behind the scenes, eager to emerge and begin firing up the imaginations of their awaiting audience.
A few weeks ago the seemingly superhuman Lewis Pugh became the final piece of the puzzle when we announced him as the third speaker in yet another epic line-up. But who is the man behind the legend? We caught up with ‘the human polar bear’ for a friendly chat, on one of the rare occasions he can be found on dry land…
How did you come to be an ocean advocate? What makes the oceans so special to you?
Oceans have always been present in my life. I grew up in Plymouth next to the ocean. My father was in the Royal Navy and when I was 10 we moved out to Cape Town, which was where I learnt to swim. I immediately fell in love with the sea and I became a maritime lawyer. During my swims I began to notice the oceans changing before my very eyes and I realised that something needed to be done; so in 2003 I packed in my career to campaign for the protection of the oceans full time. It’s not an easy existence, but I feel as though it’s what I was meant to do – my life now has a deeper meaning; I have found my purpose.
You’re known as the ‘human polar bear’ – how did this nickname come about?
I undertook the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 and the Norwegian media started calling me ‘The Ice Bear’; then the British media followed suite and it slowly evolved to ‘the human polar bear’ and that just stuck. On one hand the nickname suggests I love the cold, but actually that couldn’t be further from the truth – anyone who claims they love the cold has never been cold! But on the other hand it implies that I love the Arctic and animals, which is absolutely the case. So I guess I can live with it!
You’ve been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and Patron of the Oceans by the United Nations Environment. What would be your ultimate career achievement?
Helping to create a big national park in the ocean. Less than 2% of the world’s oceans are protected. We need to change that – and we can.
What does experiential travel mean to you? Does high-end experiential travel have a role to play in conservation?
My father was involved in the first British atomic bomb test – part of his role as a naval surgeon was to examine all the dead animals afterwards. I think this had a real effect on him. So when I was a teenager he used to take my sister and me on holidays to national parks, because he believed that people would only protect those things they love. He knew that when people really experience a wilderness area they fall in love with it, which in turns creates a desire and a motivation to protect that place.
To me this is what experiential travel is all about: it’s about people having an experience that deeply affects them and fundamentally changes who they are as a person, their views on the world and what’s important in their lives. It gently encourages people to reassess their values – it’s eye-opening. The fact is that high net worth individuals have a greater financial capacity to help with conservation efforts, so they are more able and likely to do so. We should encourage this wherever possible.
How do you think travellers should approach vulnerable ecosystems?
Very gently. I still visit national parks whenever I can – it’s a love that’s been planted deep within me. Recently I went on a wilderness trail in Umfolozi Game Reserve – it was just the wilderness and six of us. It was life changing to hike in such close proximity to rhinos and other incredible animals. And all we left behind were footprints. It can be done.
If there were one thing you could change about the travel industry, what would it be? What role do you see PURE playing in the industry today?
I feel that some people and companies have abused the term ‘eco’. I wish there were some way of vetting suppliers to stop this false advertising.
As one of our conference speakers for PURE 2013, what does ‘New Frontiers, New Challenges’ mean to you?
For me personally? When I started swimming 27 years ago, no one thought it was possible to swim across the North Pole, where the water is seven degrees colder than the waters in which the passengers of the Titanic perished. All the time I aim to do something harder, tougher and more challenging than before; but most importantly I try to do swims that really highlight the state of our oceans. So I guess that’s my interpretation of ‘New Frontiers, New Challenges’: it’s about going further than you think you can, all the time – be it physically, mentally, emotionally or conceptually. But it has to be for a reason. It’s about finding your inner motivation and using it to try and achieve something incredible.
What can we expect from your conference talk in November?
Having grown up in South Africa, one of the things I love about Africa is that Africans love to tell stories. At the PURE conference I will tell my story: of living as a young boy in Plymouth; then moving to Africa; then diving in the deep end (literally!) undertaking the first swim across the North Pole and later a swim in a glacial lake on Mount Everest. I will finish with my dream expedition for the future… But that part I will keep a secret!
Lewis Pugh is offering all PUREists his Kindle ebook, 21 Yaks and a Speedo, for just £2.99 (regular price £5.99), or $3.99 (regular price $6.99). To get yours, click here.
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