Some IE students may have heard about Nacho Dean before, and heard his stories that become a testimony for the limits of human capacity. For those who may not know of the man, Nacho Dean is the first person in history to walk around the world, and swim between five continents. Although Nacho is an adventurer and likes a challenge, the main purpose of this journey was to document the devastating effects that climate change has on the land and the ocean. In this interview, you will learn about some of his experiences from the trip – some astounding and others terrifying. He will also talk about the scientific expedition, La España Azúl, a sailing expedition along the coast of Spain that IE students had the opportunity to join. Furthermore, Nacho will describe how much human activity and pollution really has destroyed the earth, from both a scientific and a philosophical perspective. Lastly, he will talk about the challenges of combating climate change, and what the youth can do to help.
Nacho, you are the ultimate adventurer and explorer, and the first and only person to walk across the world. Could you tell me a little bit about this experience? How did it change your life?
The expedition that led me to walk all around the world took me three years, from 2013 to 2016. I walked 4 continents, 31 countries, 33,000 km on foot, to document climate change. I started in Madrid, and headed east, walked my way through Europe, Asia, Australia and America from Chile to New York, and returned back to Madrid from the west.
I walked through so many different environments: deserts, jungles, mountains, cities… I know the size of the planet as I have seen it through my own eyes. I have learned that the planet is not so big, and that we need to take care of it. The resources are limited.
I walked through Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, indigenous people in Australia, in Amazonas, Inuits in the North of Alaska, and I realized how similar we are. We might look different, speak different languages or have different beliefs, but after my journey, I have concluded that we are, mostly, good people. The people I met helped and supported me throughout my journey, although being complete strangers. Of course, a few bad things happened too – I witnessed a terrorist attack, and someone tried to kill me with a machete, but a lot can happen in three years.
It is not only the walk and the encounters that are challenging, but also the inner journey that you have while walking. You discover that you have huge potential, from the mental and physical point of view. You are far away from the comfort zone, and become aware of the amazing things and ideas you can have from the smallest starting point. All I had was my sleeping bag and my tent. I often walked 50 km a day, sometimes without food. The mental strength that we have as humans is beyond what we can imagine.
The lack of material things also made me discover that your happiness and inner peace is unrelated to the things that you own. Being happy and peaceful is about finding a purpose and having a mission in life. I spent three years carrying a trolley around with limited food and just a few pieces of clothes, and yet I was the happiest person on earth.
So, did you find your purpose?
I have always loved nature. I grew up climbing trees, playing by the river, trekking in the mountains, swimming in the rivers, jumping in the sea… I always loved nature, but as I grew up, I realized how deeply linked our health is to the health of the planet, and how important it is to take care of the climate. I decided to mix both: the personal dream, the challenge to walk around the world, but with a purpose: to document climate change.
As I was doing my trip, I was lucky enough to see how incredible the planet we live in really is: the northern lights, starry skies in the Atacama desert, I have seen so many animals that most people only see in documentaries, but at the same time, I have seen a planet that has been extremely threatened by human activity. I am talking about the CO2 pollution, the biodiversity threats, the melting of the poles… I have seen two different sides of the same coin. However, I try to send this message from the positive side, and portray passion, optimism and hope, because I believe it to be easier to call for action from that point of view.
After you walked across the world, you decided to swim across the oceans to connect the continents. You have described findings like oceans being covered in plastic from human pollution. How did this affect your view on climate change and ocean conservation?
As we live on a planet where more than 70% of the surface is covered by water, I decided to undertake the “Nemo Expedition”, an expedition where I connected all the five continents together by swimming. It was the same experience and adventure of challenging myself physically, but also for the same purpose of documenting climate change through raising awareness about the ocean.
We used to think that the land of the planet is the Amazon forest. However, the real land of the planet is the ocean. It is the part of our planet that emits the most oxygen, and captures the most carbon dioxide. The excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by industrial and human activity causes acidification of the water. A consequence of this is bleaching of the coral reefs, something that is currently happening in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Most people know that melting of the poles causes sea levels and temperatures to rise, causing extreme weather. Biodiversity in the ocean is also under threat due to overfishing.
It seems that humans believe that we belong to the land. There is a border, the beach, which goes between the land and the sea. As we don’t see what happens below the water, we treat it as if nothing exists there. However, if you ever go diving, you will discover that there is another, incredible world under the sea.
Humans tend to forget how linked we really are to the health of the ocean, and how it is in our best interest to preserve it. We love to go swimming, surfing, kayaking and other water sports. Many people also live around the sea, and have made a living from profiting off resources from the ocean. The restaurant industry, tourism, fisheries, travelling and trade are examples of this.
I spent so many hours, days and years swimming that I connected with the water from a philosophical point of view.
You have just been on a sailing expedition where students from IE had the chance to join you, as you were on a scientific expedition, sailing around Spain to conduct research about the coastline. How was it?
I gained a unique perspective through my experience, and resonate with the saying ‘think globally, act locally’. Places like Alaska, the North Pole, Australia are all very interesting and exotic places, but they are all very far. It is easier to call for action when we talk about things that are closer to us. Therefore, I decided to take on a new scientific expedition, sailing around Spain. Everyone knows Las Rias Baixas in Galicia, the Strait of Gibraltar, Malaga in the south and Costa Brava. It is a good idea to start taking care of the things that we have close to us. If everyone does this, the world would be different.
The expedition is called La España Azúl, and we have two main pillars.The first one is the scientific pillar: we are elaborating the first map about microplastic along the Spanish coast. The second pillar is about communication and citizen science. It is approaching science towards society. We are collecting information through beach cleaning that we put in scientific papers to share the findings. We are also having talks at schools and universities, and invite people on the boat along the trip to sail with us. We started in September 2022, in the Basque country, and sailed all the way through the Cantabric sea. We then sailed all the way through the Atlantic coast to the Canary Islands, and came back to Andalucia. We then sailed through the Gibraltar Strait, and were on our way to our last stop, Barcelona in Catalunya, where we will arrive in June this year.
We have stayed one month in each stop, and now we are in Valencia, which is enough time to do all the research that we want to conduct. In this period, we send samples of the sea water and send them back to the laboratory in Cadiz university. In addition, we present our projects in presentation events with local authorities, mass media, and scientific communities. We want to raise the engagement of the expedition, as well as conducting the research of microplastics.
We received a visit from 10 IE students three to four weeks ago, in Valencia. They were students from the Bachelor’s Degree of International Relations. We had a guided visit to the Oceanographic, (which is the biggest aquarium in Europe). Then, we conducted some scientific research in a natural park, before we went sailing.
What are some challenges you face of being an advocate of climate change?
There are many challenges to being an advocate of climate change, but the biggest one is to get companies, politicians and authorities involved. These are the actors that really can make exponential change for the environment. However, the SDGs are a step in the right direction, and people are getting more and more involved.
What I do is to try to share my story with as many people as possible, to influence and inspire people to do what they can for the climate.
From my professional point of view, I want to get my two books that I have, Libre y Salvaje: La Gran Aventura de la Vuelta al Mundo de Pie, and La Llamada del Océano: La Gran Aventura de Unir Nadando los 5 Continentes, translated to English, in order to reach a larger audience.
How do you believe that the youth can get more engaged in combating climate change?
You can do a lot of things. First of all, you can spread awareness. The new generation is amazing at social media and communication, which you can use to spread this message as far as possible.
Another important initiative is to be a member of some organization or initiative that is committed to the fight against climate change or nature conservation. Although it is good to read books and educate yourself about climate change, initiatives like these allow you to be an active part of the movement.
Another initiative could be to try to go places by walking or biking in your daily life, to avoid car usage. I managed to walk 33,000 km around the planet, so I bet you would be able to walk those 5 km to campus.
The biggest threat to the sea is the single use of plastic, so try to avoid this, or avoid buying food that is wrapped in unnecessary plastic in the grocery store.
The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, so try to reduce the purchase of new clothes and shop more secondhand.
However, this is not easy. Although we know all of this from before, there is so much advertising and marketing for these brands that we forget. Therefore, global action is needed, above everything. So we, as consumers, need to make changes in our habits, but the companies and the authorities also have to get involved.
We don’t have much time. We are playing by the rules of nature. We call ourselves intelligent beings, so let’s change the system, not the climate.