United Nations Environment Programme

Lewis Pugh

Lewis Pugh – known as the 'Edmund Hillary of swimming’ for his extraordinary achievements – has taken part in the biggest cleanup in history
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What is inspiring is that it is not a government initiative. It's local residents saying 'we won't allow this to carry on'

It is the largest peacetime clean-up operation in history. On 6 August, nearly 500 people descended on Mumbai's Versova Beach and removed vast amounts of rubbish.

And it was no flash in the pan, but the 43rd weekend on which local residents have worked to clean one of the world's most polluted strands since a 33-year-old lawyer, Afroz Shah, and his octogenarian neighbour, Harbanash Mathur, first rolled up their sleeves and got to work last October. Since then the Versova Resident Volunteers have removed at least 1,300 tons of trash.

That weekend they were joined by Lewis Pugh, swimmer extraordinaire, and UN Environment's Patron of the Oceans. And no wonder. As he told Our Planet: “Marine litter is having a very serious impact on marine life. We've only had plastics for about 60 years. But now you find them all over the world’s beaches, even the most inaccessible beaches in the high Arctic.”

Indeed, some 13 million tons of plastics end up in the world's seas every year, and production of the material is due to increase fourfold by 2050. By then, according to one recent study, the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh their entire population of fish. Pugh sees it as an “enormous threat”.

He first became interested in the environment, he says, because his parents loved to take him to national parks in South Africa, where they had made their home. “It all started there. Nothing brought me greater joy than watching herds of elephants at the nearby Addo Elephant National Park. If you see something so beautiful, you want to protect it.”

He was 17 before he had his first swimming lesson, but - just a month later - swam the 7 kilometres from Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters were imprisoned) to Cape Town, foreshadowing an extraordinary career which has led to him being dubbed the “Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming”.

Starting out as a maritime lawyer, he left his practice in 2003, aged 34, to campaign full-time for ocean protection. In 2006 he became the first person to swim the entire length of River Thames to visit Britain’s prime minister in London, so as to call attention to global warming and a severe drought gripping the country. The next year he became the first to swim across the width of the Maldives and, even more adventurously, to swim long-distance across a patch of ice-free sea near the North Pole, both feats again drawing attention to the effects of climate change.

In 2010 he swam across Lake Pumori, a glacial lake 5,300 metres up Mount Everest, to highlight melting glaciers, and four years later completed the first series of long-distance swims in all the earth’s “Seven Seas” (its oceans) to campaign for more marine protected areas. He has also undertaken several swims in Antarctica's Ross Sea to press for its protection. Yet, even for his coldest swims, he wears no more than a Speedo costume, cap and goggles.

“I decided to undertake swims in the world’s most fragile places to carry a message,” he says. “There are so many environmental issues, so I try to focus on ocean ones. If you become a voice for everything, you soon become a voice for nothing.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that he has said that the clean-up of Versova Beach “shows us that no challenge is insurmountable”. He told Our Planet: “What is inspiring is that it is not a government initiative. It's local residents saying 'we won't allow this to carry on'. Ultimately we all have to take personal responsibility for the health of our Earth.”

As UN Environment head Erik Solheim has said, the clean-up was “every bit as important as the global agreements making headlines ... because it reminds the rest of the world that even the most ambitious global agreements are only as good as the individual action and determination that bring them to life.”