Lewis Pugh to attempt 160km swim across Red Sea for Cop27

British-South African endurance swimmer is calling attention to devastating effects of global warming on coral reefs

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UN Patron of the Oceans and British-South African endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh will attempt a 160-kilometre swim across the Red Sea starting on Tuesday to call attention to the devastating effects of climate change on coral reefs ahead of Cop27.

Pugh will cover about 10 kilometres a day during the two-week feat that is being billed as the world’s first swim across the Red Sea.

It will start on Tiran Island in Saudi Arabia, pass by Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt is hosting the UN climate summit Cop 27 next month, and end in the Egyptian city of Hurghada on October 25.

“My message to world leaders is very clear: every fraction of a degree of warming now matters," Pugh said in a Facebook post on Monday. "And this is why, if we continue to overheat our planet, we are on course to lose 99 per cent of all coral reefs and so much more.

“No matter where you are on this planet, this will impact you. And this is why I’m urging all nations to drastically cut their emissions without any further delay.”

🚨 ANNOUNCEMENT 🚨 Tomorrow, I will begin the first swim across the Red Sea, to deliver a message. Precious coral reefs are being destroyed by warming oceans. I am urging world leaders to take bold climate action at #COP27 🪸🌍🌡 #CoralSwim United Nations | UN Environment Programme

Posted by Lewis Pugh on Sunday, October 9, 2022

Pugh will be accompanied by Egyptian swimmer Mostafa Said for the full distance.

“For me, it’s something for Egypt, for my country, and to raise awareness about Red Sea conservation,” Said, 36, told The National.

Coral reefs cover only 0.2 per cent of the sea floor, but they support at least 25 per cent of marine species, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network says.

Global warming, marine pollution, overfishing, coastal development and mass tourism have all played a part in their destruction. About 14 per cent of the world’s coral reefs were wiped out between 2009 and 2018.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that even if global warming is limited to only 1.5°C — the most ambitious target set by the Paris Agreement — the world’s coral reefs will decline by at least 70 per cent. With 2°C of warming, virtually all coral reefs would be lost by 2070.

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Pugh, 52, has been a long-distance swimmer for 35 years and an advocate for marine preservation for nearly two decades.

He has several accolades to his name, including becoming the first person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans of the world, achieved in 2006, and the first to swim the 528km length of the English Channel, from Land's End to Dover, in 2018.

Born in the UK, Pugh moved with his family to South Africa as a young boy. He found his calling at the age of 17 when he did his first long-distance 7.5km swim from Robben Island to Cape Town.

His decision to become an ocean advocate began in 2005 after swimming across Deception Island in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica, where he observed a sea floor “white with whale bones”.

Since then, every swim has had the purpose of highlighting the climate crisis in the world’s rivers, seas and oceans. They include a 2007 swim across the North Pole to show the rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice and a 2010 swim across a glacial lake on Mount Everest to draw attention to the melting of glaciers.

He was appointed the UN Patron of Oceans and inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 2013.

When Pugh swam the English Channel in 2018, he called on the UK to champion a global target of protecting 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

To date, 128 countries have joined the 30x30 campaign and it is Pugh’s goal at Cop27, which takes place from November 6 to 18, to encourage more nations to commit to this pledge.

In Marine Protected Areas, governments place limits on human activities to avoid damaging the environment, making oceans more resilient to climate change.

For the Red Sea swim, the Lewis Pugh Foundation is teaming up with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (Hepca). The network of scientists, professional divers, industry experts and community members has called for the Great Fringing Reef in the Egyptian Red Sea to be declared a protected area.

The 400-square-km reef is characterised as having high resilience and tolerance to climate change. However, the pressure on the corals is substantial, with more than 200,000 dives each year at some sites in Hurghada.

Said, a dentist who played water polo before shifting to endurance swimming races, has followed Pugh for several years.

Nicknamed “Zodiac”, Said completed the 26-kilometre Lake Zurich Marathon Swim in August in nine hours, winning second place in the 18 to 50 age category.

He said he had contacted Pugh with the hope of meeting him at Cop27 and was offered the opportunity to join him on the Red Sea swim.

“No one has ever attempted it,” he said. "It’s super dangerous because of sharks, currents and turbulence in this area."

Updated: June 20, 2023, 7:16 AM