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World's Best Cold Water Swimmer

Lewis diving into the seas off Antarctica (Photo by Terje Eggum)

There's no better time to call out Lewis Gordon Pugh than during COP15.

Pugh dons nothing more than a cap, goggles, and a Speedo to call attention to shrinkage. He's set long-distance, cold-water swimming records allaround the the globe in an effort to raise awareness of climate change. In the process he's established a healthy competition with the polar bear for attracting news related to global warming. But which land mammal is the best cold water swimmer?

World's Best Cold Water Swimmer: Lewis Gordon Pugh vs. The Polar Bear

After tackling saltwater records all over the globe, in April of 2010 Pugh plans to swim in a glacial lake on the Khumbu Glacier under the summit of Mt. Everest.

"This swim is being billed by a number of swimming websites as the mostdifficult swim ever to be attempted," said Pugh. "The combination of the watertemperature (approximately 0 degrees centigrade), fresh water (nobuoyancy compared to salt water) and the altitude contribute to this."

We all know that ice cold is cooler than being cool, but Pugh his extreme plunge a step further with a do-good message.

"My greatest hope is that it will make world leaders raise their headsabove the parapet and understand what is at stake. The glaciers on theHimalayas are retreating fast due to climate change. They provide aconstant supply of water to over 1.3 billion people. They feed theGanges, Yangtze and Indus Rivers. They are not just ice but alifeline. We need to dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions to protectthese rivers and the people who depend on them."

Pugh is building strength through weight training, and endurance through long distance runs on hills. Soon, he'll head over to the Andes to train for swimming at altitude.

He'll also add insulation. In 2007, Pugh strokedacross the geographic North Pole for 18 minutes and 50 seconds in water temperatures around 29 degrees Fahrenheit. The 6-foot-1-inch, 190-lb. Britstarted gorging two months before his attempt, adding an extra 29extra pounds by eating six balanced meals a day, including his favoritecravings of ostrich meat and milk.

Whenthe average person enters cold water the number one danger is shock. Exposure to the extreme cold can cause people to panic, hyperventilate, and drown. Pugh’s training (he swims in water of decreasing temperatures for increasing lengths of time) helps his body anticipate the cold. Before he entersthe water he’s like a horse chomping at the bit. He gets agitated and hot. Hesays his core temperature rises by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit before he even dives in.

Once in, he keeps his face andappendages from freezing through constant movement. (The swimming actually cools his core faster because the blood vessels in his appendages interact with the cold water, bringing chilled blood back to his vitals.) To ensure that he doesn’t pushhimself too far, a doctor on a zodiac records his pulse, coretemperature, and time in the water. His body has dropped below the clinicaldiagnosis of hypothermia, to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. When he swam the North Pole, he had two main fears. The first wascontracting hypothermia. The second? 

"Polar bears."

His fear was not without reason. Consider the polar bear as hunter based on bits from Richard Ellis' dense new book "On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear." Polar bears have been known to swim under ice floes and surge up through ice to snare unsuspecting resting seals. They stalk floating seabirds from underwater. A polar bear estimated at roughly 285 pounds (the largest one ever was estimated at 2,200 pounds) once dragged a 2,000 pound beluga whale out of the sea.


Ellis packs the book with stories and facts about the polar bear as a capable long-distance swimmer. There's a reason Constantine Phipps named the polar bear Ursus maritimus in 1774. It spends more time in water than any other bear, and bears as a whole are pretty good swimmers. In the first edition of Origin of Species, Charles Darwin postulated that bears could have evolved into whales after seeing one swim with its mouth open to catch insects just above the water line. Though the polar bear spends only part of its life in water, it spends much more time walking on ice (a.k.a frozen water). The polar bear likes to wander. A single bear may cover 100,000 square miles during its lifetime. Still, they're built to swim. They have smaller ears and tails than their brown cousins to prevent heat loss. Their broad front paws (13 inches long and 9inches wide) contain webbing between the toes and act as superefficient paddles, while their shorter hind legs serve as rudders. Anictitating membrane on their eyes allows them to see underwater, wherethey hold their breath for two minutes before rising up to surpriseprey. A healthy layer of fat covers most of their body, including theirhead and paws, and may reach five inches thick on their rump. They useall that insulation to keep their body temperatures at 98.6 degrees,or the same temperature as the average human. They can swim for days at a time and maintain an average speed of six miles per hour. They've been spotted in the water more than 100 miles from land or ice. And when they get out, their hair does not mat, allowing them to shake the water off before it freezes.

Which brings us back to the reason Pugh dove into arctic waters for a swim with the alpha predators in the first place. Increasingly, polar bears have been sighted swimming far from shore, likely due to shrinkage of the polar ice cap. Pugh wanted to call attention to this, because as the ice cap shrinks, the bears have less time on the floes to hunt and a greater distance to swim when returning back to land in warm weather. Though they are excellent swimmers, the longer distance could lead to fatigue, and leave them more susceptible to hazardous conditions and storms. In 2004, scientists found four polar bear carcasses floating in the water, presumably after drowning.

The Winner: Hands down, the polar bear beats Pugh as a long-distance, cold water swimmer. Pugh would want it that way, considering all the recent shrinkage.

If you want to learn more about the polar bear, pick up Richard Ellis' book. It's packed with stories of human encounters with the bears, the possible effects of climate change on the alpha predators, and the amazing physical feats that define the animals as hunters, parents, and explorers.

--Joe Spring

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