Swimming with the trash

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Only days after his 51st birthday, Ben Lecomte found himself miles off the coast of Tokyo, swimming next to a small boat filled with scientists, a doctor and a film crew. Everyone on the vessel watched in awe as Lecomte finished his 8 hours in the water that day–a feat he would repeat multiple times over the next 6 months as he approached his final North American destination.

His goal? To swim from Tokyo to San Francisco as a fundraising tool to raise awareness about pollution in the ocean. But irreparable damages to the boat’s mainsail caused his trip to be cut short, forcing him to stop in Hawaii.

That was last summer.

On Ocean Day Saturday, now 52-year-old Lecomte began the final lap –100 days of swimming from Hawaii to California through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

You can follow Lecomte’s journey and can track his daily swims here.

Some of Lecomte’s earliest memories are of his father taking him to the beaches of France and teaching him how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. He loved the unpredictability of the water and the way the waves made every swim unique and exciting.

Lecomte’s love for the ocean never faltered. He continued to swim throughout his childhood and into his adulthood until distance swimming transformed from a hobby into a way to emotionally and physically challenge himself.

But when Lecomte’s father passed away from cancer, he knew that he could take the gift his father had given him so many years ago to raise money for cancer research. That’s why in 1998, 31-year-old Lecomte embarked on his first large-scale aquatic adventure. He decided to swim the 3,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Hyannis, Massachusetts, to Quiberon, France.

After the incredible, yet successful swim across the Atlantic, Lecomte knew he wasn’t done challenging himself.

“It’s like a driver,” Lecomte said. “You swim an amount and you think about what is next. After the Atlantic, the biggest one [is the Pacific], so that’s the natural progression.”

Work, marriage and the birth of his two children prevented Lecomte from getting back into long-distance swimming for a number of years. He also wanted to make sure he chose a worthy cause to swim for.

He found one.

“I was seeing more and more plastic everywhere; more and more plastic on the beach. That gave me the idea of using the platform of the swim to get the attention on the plastic issue,” explained Lecomte.

In June 2018, Lecomte set out on what is now being coined “The Longest Swim.” Accompanied by nine volunteer crew members, Lecomte, who incredibly only lost about 10 pounds during the 6-month swim, traveled about 1,700 miles before he was forced to stop.

While the volunteers were on board to assist Lecomte on his journey, they also had their own motives for taking a 6-month hiatus from traditional work. Scientists on board collected data for their own research, as well as for land-bound scientists. Because conducting experiments in the middle of the ocean for long periods of time can be expensive, those involved in this expedition agreed to share the wealth and help as many researchers as they could with collecting data that ranged from the ocean garbage to Lecomte himself. In total, 27 different scientific organizations ranging from NASA to the Smithsonian Institution requested data collection from the scientists on board. Some research focused on microorganisms that attach themselves to garbage debris, other research examined Lecomte’s microbiome and how his body would handle staying in an ocean environment for so long.

A Seeker and Discovery videographer also joined the team, capturing every heart stopping, emotional and exhilarating moment of the swim for a documentary that is rumored to premiere sometime this fall, according to Lecomte.

“For me, the [media] platform is important because what I want to do is to spread interest and attention of the plastic and the state of our ocean. So, there’s a big part of education and also a big part of research that we wanted to carry out about the state of our ocean,” Lecomte said of the upcoming documentary. “So, for the education and for that to be on going, I thought it was very important that we create or produce a documentary.”

Lecomte hopes that the documentary helps people recognize the vast variety of waste floating in the ocean.

“The strange thing to me is that almost everything we found is something that we touch or use almost every day. It was everyday pieces of plastic that we have in our life, like a plastic cup, or a lot of food wrappers, shampoo and yogurt [containers]–a lot were just day-to-day common use items,” Lecomte said.

He also hopes viewers take away just how far polluted waste can travel.

“We found it no matter where we were. It didn’t matter if we were very close to the coast or out miles away. We saw plastic everyday. We collected plastic, microplastic, microfiber everyday. That, I was very surprised by,” he said.

Lecomte’s surprise over the surplus of plastic in the ocean, combined with his desire to educate others has led him to want to film as much of this year’s swim, called “The Vortex Swim,” as possible.

This significantly shorter swim will take Lecomte and his new nine-person crew through one of the largest accumulations of trash in the entire ocean.

As Lecomte swims from one large patch of waste to the next, this year’s scientists will collect data for 13 scientific investigations while aboard an Icebreaker-sponsored 67 Challenger racing boat. The  67-foot boat has two bathrooms. Juliette Humer, a biochemical researcher of microplastics in the Aegean Sea at Archipelagos, Institute of Marine Conservation, and Marina Botana, a scientist with a master’s in oceanography from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, prepared for the trip by transforming one of the boat’s two bathrooms into a make-shift lab.

Over the coming 100 days, the two scientists will gather information for other scientists, as well as conduct a project they have named “The Jesus Bug Project.” This project got its name from halobates, which are insects that skate atop the ocean’s surface. Recent studies have found that microplastics accumulate in the Brazilian halobates bodies–even eventually appearing within their eggs.

“These little, tiny [plastic] particles stay inside the bodies of these insects throughout their life cycles,” said Botana. She and Humer hope to determine if this phenomenon is also occurring within halobates living in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Like Lecomte, Botana and Humer recognize that their time spent in the vortex will be significant.

“It’s not only an adventure, it’s also an incredible way to make an impact. It’s a platform for education to help us as micro plastic scientists,” said Humer.

Of course, Lecomte hopes that this year’s swim doesn’t run into any technical difficulties like last year. But even if it does, he knows there will be future opportunities to swim.

“I plan to swim again after. If my body is in good shape to do that. I plan to do another swim as a way to get the attention on the[plastic] issue. I don’t know if it’s next year. I don’t know exactly when it’s going to be, but I plan on staying involved,” Lecomte said.

Photo at top: An ocean wave. (Elias Sch)