Coming down to Earth

lewis pugh

By Lewis Pugh

No one likes to be told what they can or cannot do. Back in 2004, when I attempted the first swim between the Pillars of Hercules to commemorate Gibraltar’s tercentenary, everyone told me I was crazy. Swimming between Spain and Morocco is one thing. But taking on the Pillars is quite another.

Of course I didn’t listen. I am a pioneer swimmer and charting new routes is what I do. But the Strait taught me a lesson in humility.

I’d been told that the current was fierce. However I’ve never experienced anything like the flow between Mount Jebel Musa and the Rock of Gibraltar. I’d only swum 500m before it hit me: it was like I’d been picked up by the seat of my Speedo and spun eastwards. I heard my coach call out, “Have you got a visa for Egypt, Lewis? Because that’s where you’re heading!”

The art of knowing when to stop is to give in graciously.

Not long afterwards I seconded a group of eight swimmers through those same waters. We chose the traditional route. The sea was a glorious turquoise blue and bubbled with life. They swam with dolphins and a maelstrom of other marine animals. There are very few places I’ve swum outside of Antarctica blessed with so much wildlife.

The Pillars of Hercules are a gateway to those legendary ancient seas. Here, still, you have this upwelling of rich resources where the warm and cold waters mix, with the Rock of Gibraltar looking out like a sentinel over an aquatic paradise.

Which makes it all the more puzzling to me that some of the citizens that call this Rock home can be so seemingly cavalier about its marine life.

I’m talking about the tradition of setting off thousands of helium-filled balloons every year on Gibraltar’s National Day.

Two weeks ago I met with the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Minister for Environment John Cortes and organisers of the celebrations to urge them to end this practice. Here’s what I told them:

Just because a balloon is floating gaily up into the air, doesn’t mean that isn’t dumping. Because what goes up, must come down. The problem is, you don’t know where it’s coming down. So instead of disposing your post-celebration litter in a recycling facility, the citizens of this beautiful Rock are sending it out to be someone else’s problem.

In January this year the World Economic Forum released a report that cited a frightening statistic: at the rate we’re going, by 2050 the oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish by weight.

Have you seen those gut-wrenching pictures of sea birds cut open during autopsies to reveal insides tangled with fishing line and plastic? Your balloons are also likely to end up in the same place.

That’s because when wildlife, birds, fish and farm animals come across a piece of balloon they often mistake it for food. When they try to eat it, it either blocks their stomach, strangles them or chokes them – all horrible ways for an animal to die.

Scientists have been tracking plastic ingestion in seabirds for decades. In 1960, plastic was found in less than 5% of them. Now the figure lies over 90%. Small wonder we’ve seen such a rapid decline in seabird populations around the world.

And please don’t buy the green-wash that balloons are biodegradable; they just break down into smaller pieces, which makes them bite-sized for smaller fish. Which will, if they survive, be eaten by bigger fish. Which might, in turn, be eaten by you.

Would the citizens of Gibraltar each agree to eat a balloon to celebrate their nationhood? I don’t think so. So why condemn innocent animals to do so?

And how would you feel if thousands of balloons from another nation landed on your beautiful beaches? Yet with the prevailing winds, Gibraltar’s balloons will likely end up in its neighbours’ waters or on their farms.

Of course children love a spectacle. But if you gave your children the facts, would they still support this practice? They are the ones who’ll inherit this earth when we’re gone. Rather than standing on the sidelines clapping, shouldn’t tax-paying parents be asking why their hard-earned money is being used to pollute and kill.

It takes humility to turn back from a mistake, especially if that mistake has become a tradition.

While my family has close ties with Gibraltar, it is certainly not my intention to tell Gibraltarians what to do. But I respectfully urge every citizen to look to his or her conscience, muster your considerable creativity, and find 30,000 alternative ways to proudly mark the 10th of September.

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the United Nations Patron of the Oceans.

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