Lewis completes the world’s first swim under the Antarctic Ice Sheet

On 23rd January 2020, Lewis Pugh attempted to swim where no human had swum before: through an ice tunnel under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The original plan was to swim across one of the 65,000 glacial lakes scientists had discovered on top of the East Antarctic ice sheet. But when the team found a river tunneling under the ice, Lewis knew he’d found the perfect location to highlight the rapid changes happening in Antarctica.

Russian ice-hockey legend and UN Patron of the Polar Regions Slava Fetisov was his second, responsible for protecting Lewis in this endeavour. But once Lewis had entered the ice tunnel, he was alone.

The temperature was 0°C. Not only was the water freezing, combined with a severe wind chill factor, but there was also the threat of the supra-glacial river suddenly emptying out through a crack in the ice sheet.

"In every swim I’ve undertaken, I’ve always had a safety boat next to me," says Lewis. "Swimming down this tunnel I would be alone." But once he entered the river, Lewis says, he was totally present. "The colours transfixed me; the ice walls started out a luminous turquoise, then became royal blue, then indigo, then violet. Midway through the tunnel I had to take my goggles off to see where I was going, and to avoid the huge stalactites hanging like daggers from the frozen ceiling."

When the ice tunnel began to crack , the safety team pulled Lewis out of the water. "All the blues in the world were not as beautiful as the light I saw as I emerged out the end of that tunnel," Lewis recalls. "I had swum for just over ten minutes. It wasn’t possible to tell exactly how far I’d swum, because my GPS watch didn’t work underneath the ice, but when my team helped me out I was frozen to my core. The hike back to base camp took almost two hours, but at least it warmed me up!"

Sadly,  Antarctica is warming too: one week after his swim, a record high air temperature of 20°C  was recorded on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Abundant Antarctica

The Southern Ocean is the world's most important body of water. It drives ocean currents that affect our global climate and provides feeding and breeding grounds for some of our most iconic ocean species.

In 2016 we helped create the world's largest protected area in the Ross Sea off Antarctica. We now have an historic opportunity to increase this further by building a network of Marine Protected Areas around the continent.  

Antarctica is a living laboratory

The Southern Ocean also provides scientists with a rare example of what ocean life was like before devastating human impact. And they have found that the Polar Regions feel the effects of the Climate Emergency more dramatically than anywhere else on earth.

Recent data shows that Antarctica lost the same amount of sea ice in four years (2014 - 2017) as the Arctic lost in the past thirty years.

Supra-glacial lakes

Supra-glacial lakes form when meltwater collects on the surface of an ice sheet. Shockingly, a recent study led by Professor Chris Stokes of Durham University found over 65,000 of these lakes on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, indicating that surface melting is more widespread than previously thought. They are also occurring much further inland and at much higher elevations than previously observed.

At the opposite pole, in Greenland, the development of lakes is strongly linked to air temperatures as climate warming causes more  lakes to form. Antarctica is unique. There are no areas left in the world that are as pristine as Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean. Nor are there any areas more critical to the health of our planet.

Two Great Defencemen

Lewis met Slava Fetisov in Moscow when he visited the city in 2015, immediately after his swim in the Ross Sea.

Although they came from very different worlds, from nations that were not only in competition, but often in conflict, they found common ground in sport.

Slava Fetisov was the greatest defenceman in ice-hockey history. He is a two-time Olympic champion and won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the NHL.

Slava is no stranger to the power of sport as a force for good. In 2018, he was appointed UN Patron of the Polar Regions for his role in helping secure Russia's support for the creation of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area.

The continent of Antarctica has always been a place for cooperation. Our expedition amplifies this spirit of friendship and peace in a special bicentennial year: 2020 marks 200 years since the discovery of Antarctica by Russian Admiral Bellingshausen.

Russia's Antarctic Legacy

In 1819, two Russian ships set sail for the far south in search of a rumoured continent that had never actually been seen. The expedition was led by Admiral Bellingshausen on his ship the Vostok, with Mikhail Lazarev as his second in command on the Mirny.

En route from St Petersburg, Bellingshausen paid a visit to London. There he consulted with Joseph Banks of the Royal  Society. Banks shared with him the maps of Captain James Cook, the British explorer and cartographer who had come close to Antarctica but never actually got sight of land. It would be the Russians who would claim that honour.

Our swim site was as close as possible to the area first sighted by Bellingshausen. It was also adjacent to the Russian research station Novolazarevskaya, one of various scientific stations. As discoveries from this remote and frozen corner of the planet are shared with the world, it confirms Antarctica as a place of peace, friendship and science.