One human being who tends to spend more time in the ocean than out is extreme cold-water swimmer Justin Coetzee. He is a naturalist. An adventurer. A conservationist. An aquatic being who cares. Justin finds himself submerged in this beautiful but fragile underwater world every day and is using this phenomenal ability to withstand sub-zero temperatures and to swim kilometers in the cold oceans around the world, to highlight the serious issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.
Justin logged more than 1 000 kilometres training in the ocean over the last 12 months. No wetsuit. He sees and feels the plastic. He knows we need to make a difference, now. As a Two Oceans Aquarium Ambassador he is swimming for sea change.
Plastic pollution is the accumulation of man-made plastic products in our natural environment to the point where it creates problems for wildlife, their habitats and also for humans. Plastics are persistent polluters of all environmental niches, from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea. The entanglement in, and ingestion of plastic debris have serious negative effects on animals.
As the Two Oceans Aquarium we want to create awareness around this global issue, but more so we want to inspire people to take action, to use and re-use plastics responsibly, and make a difference to our shared environment. Our conservation projects around turtle rehabilitation and seal disentanglement continue to highlight the impact of plastic pollution on marine animals and the environment.
We are absolutely thrilled to have Justin on board, or at least in the water, as an ambassador. Justin is supporting, swimming for and also living our campaigns. Rethink the Bag, Straws Suck, Cut-a-Loop and Balloon Busters have become part of our own, and Justin’s, sustainability journey.
Meet Justin Coetzee
“I’ve been a swimmer for as long as I can remember. I grew up in northern Natal in the ‘70s, so I spent the first 10 years of my life in Richard’s Bay’s sub-tropical climate - always swimming.
“I swam competitively for about 15 years, but it was all pool swimming and short course racing events. And in those 15 years no coach of mine could ever get me to swim further than 200m in a race. I wasn’t a distance swimmer; I was a sprinter.
“In 1997 I went to the world championships in Sheffield and that was kind of the end of swimming for me. Swimming had been so much a part of my life, it consumed my life, and I just wanted to get on with a career and everything else. I stopped swimming for a long time.
“Then, about four years ago, I had a chance meeting with a guy who told me about his escapades in the ocean and in the ice, and invited me to join one of his swims. I haven’t stopped swimming since and I will never stop swimming again.”
Enduring the elements
“I like to challenge myself and do things that I believe are worthwhile, so it’s not about racing against anyone else, it’s just about getting in and doing amazing swims. My motivation is the personal challenge, it’s about taking on the extremes and doing something really worth while.
“Endurance swimming is the purest form of meditation I’ve ever experienced. When I get in the water, there are a couple of things that I consciously don’t think about. The first is the elements - the water temperature and things like that. Secondly, I make a conscious effort to not allow my mind to play tricks on me in terms of the potential dangers.”
Focus is everything
“I’ve learnt over the years that to accomplish anything worthwhile requires real focus, and if you start worrying about all the negatives it’s going to detract from your ability to complete the task. So whether it’s business or swimming or anything else in life, I focus on what I need to get done.”
And you have to commit
“I swim every day, come rain or shine, regardless of conditions. Camps Bay is where I live and play, so typically I swim across the bay from one end to the other. I like to get that circuit done a couple of times a day. And I mix it up with long-distance swims. I recently swam from Llundudno to Camps Bay in my Speedo in 7 degree water – that’s about 8-9km. It’s a beautiful swim.
“I feel very privileged to be able to get into the ocean and to be that close to it. It’s one thing being on a boat or a paddle ski or surfboard, but to actually be immersed in it is amazing”.
Swimsuits full of plastic
“Because I spend so much time on the beach and in the ocean, I see so much plastic pollution. During high tourism season it becomes a major thorn in my side when I see the remnants of a good time that are left behind. I’ll be swimming along and see a bag and I’ll stop and it goes into the swimming costume. We pull out bags and bags of rubbish.
“When the southeaster blows, the trash that’s on the beaches and on the roads ends up in the sea, where animals ingest it. I swim with dolphins, I swim with whales, all in Camps Bay - right on our doorstep - and these creatures cannot process plastic. It is a problem and it causes a lot of damage. I don’t think the vast majority of people fully appreciate what sort of damage a little bit of plastic can do.
“For me that’s a big issue, and that’s why I swim to raise awareness. The Two Oceans Aquarium provides the kind of platform that we can really use to draw attention to the problem. It’s a fantastic facility and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”
“I look to the kids, because I think children can make such a massive impact. My 10-year-old daughter tells me on an ongoing basis about her recycling efforts at school and, using me as a sounding board, reinforces the belief system that she’s developing around the environment. If kids are learning about how precious the environment is and how they can make a difference in everything they do, as individuals and within the family, that can really start making a massive difference over time.”
Justin swam with Aquarium sharks
In May 2016, Justin swam with four resident ragged-tooth sharks in the I&J Predator Exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium as well as Yoshi – our loggerhead turtle - and shoals of yellowtail, kob, spotted grunters and musselcrackers to name but a few. The ragged-tooth sharks have since been released, but Justin's awareness-raising crusade continues.
Just like out in the open ocean, Justin did not allow fear to play a role in his experience. "I knew that there was a really good team and that I was in really good hands, but it never occurred to me that anything could go wrong. I have this overwhelming faith that the environment will know that I’m not there to disrespect it or do anything negative; it’s a positive thing because what we’re really trying to do is raise awareness for these wonderful creatures."