Sitting by the ocean, watching the sunset, can be the most serene experience on earth. But that sense of peace should not extend under the surface. Our oceans are dying. We must act to save them, before it is too late.

Within my own lifetime, I have swum over bleached and desolate coral reefs that I remember once being vibrant and alive. Centuries ago, Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary of how hard it was to sleep on the Atlantic as his wooden ship kept hitting turtles. That’s how the oceans used to be, and should be: teeming with life.

There are still places where one can glimpse how ocean life must have been before the touch of human hands. To swim off Antarctica, amid the deafening tumult of penguins and seals, is to know hope that our waters can be restored to health.

In the past, I have swum to draw attention to our changing climate. I swam across the North Pole, where it should have been impassable with ice. I swam across a lake on the side of Mount Everest, which ought to have still been a glacier.

Now my campaigning energies are focused on one goal: creating more marine protected areas in the most fragile parts of our oceans.

It is over six decades since the Serengeti was declared a national park. The Kruger National Park dates from 1898. Yellowstone National Park was protected even earlier, in 1872. This was an age in many ways far less enlightened than our own about the need for conservation, yet good men and women had the vision to see that some things were worth saving and the determination to act.

The moment has come to do the same for our oceans. Are we not capable of doing for the seas in the 21st century what our forebears managed on the land many years ago?

Less than 2% of our oceans enjoy meaningful protection. Scientists know that more is necessary, but persuading political leaders is a struggle. In the United Kingdom, where I come from, a panel of government experts advised in 2012 that 127 new Marine Conservation Zones needed to be created to protect the endangered species that inhabit our island’s coasts. The government agreed to only 31.

We need to find ways to shake people out of their apathy. Just how urgent the danger is was brought home to me when I agreed to be the Patron of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. They wanted me to help publicize the ongoing ecological disaster of a ship called the Seli 1. It’s a story that encapsulates the modern failures of ocean governance.

In 2009, the Seli 1 ran aground off the Cape of Good Hope. Nobody took responsibility in time. The ship’s owners had allowed their insurance to lapse, meaning they couldn’t afford to salvage it. The local government thought the national government should step in. The national government wanted the local government to pay.

For nearly three years, the Seli 1 sank deeper into the sand, disgorging more oil with every passing storm. And on the Cape of Good Hope, there are plenty of storms. The oil spread into the feeding grounds of the African penguin.

Penguins can’t fly, so they’re relatively easy to count – and that makes them an indicator species for the health of the oceans. By counting them, we can tell what’s happening to the populations of fish they eat. In 1900, there were over 3 million African penguins. By 2000, that number had been slashed to 100,000. Since then, it has almost halved again.

The damage we are wreaking on ocean life today is devastating – but because it is under the surface, it is easier to ignore. We urgently need leaders from the public and private sectors and civil society to step forward and say we can ignore it no longer.

Lewis Pugh is founder of Our Blue Future, a maritime lawyer, ocean advocate and pioneer swimmer. He is participating in the Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos.

Image: Thai soldiers wearing biohazard suits take part as cleaning operations continue at Ao Prao Beach on Koh Samet, Rayong July 31, 2013. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha