Ben Lecomte holds a piece of plastic found in the Pacific Ocean that has become a home for small crabs. Photograph: @osleston
Ben Lecomte is spending his summer swimming in trash – literally. So far, he’s found toothbrushes, laundry baskets, sandbox shovels and beer crates floating out in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The 52-year-old Frenchman is journeying from Hawaii to San Francisco via the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to better understand how plastic is affecting our oceans. He will swim a total of 300 nautical miles, intermittently travelling by sailboat with a crew of 10 the rest of the way.
His swim will take him through a gyre known as the Pacific trash vortex, home to the largest concentration of plastic debris in the world. The distance is also a metaphorical journey for the 300m tons of plastic waste produced annually, of which an estimated 8m tons of plastic waste is pushed into the oceans.
Since starting the trip on 14 June in Hawaii, Lecomte and his crew – consisting of sailors, storytellers and scientists – have found everything from empty containers to children’s toys and abandoned fishing nets. Crew member and scientist Drew McWhirter even discovered microplastics in their dinner: upon slitting open a freshly caught mahi-mahi, he saw a piece of plastic lodged in the fish’s stomach.
“It was a very sobering experience,” Lecomte says. “Plastic trash coming back to our plates.”
The long-distance swim is the first of its kind ever to be attempted. Designed as a science-meets-adventure expedition, Lecomte and his team are collecting microplastic samples and placing GPS tags on larger floating plastic waste, so that researchers can better understand how plastics move through the oceans.
Lecomte is also on a mission to debunk the myth that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating pile of plastic. There is no “trash island”, he says, but rather an “underwater smog of microplastic”.
This is not Lecomte’s first long-distance swim. In 1998, he became the first man to cross the Atlantic without the aid of a kickboard – a feat that took him 73 days and even saw him followed by sharks. Last year he attempted to swim across the Pacific, launching from Japan. He completed 1,500 nautical miles (2,700 kilometers) before he was forced to abandon the effort due to stormy conditions, which damaged his support boat.
That support boat is crucial, giving Lecomte the rest and nourishment he needs to swim an average of eight hours every day. He stops during his swim to have some soup and bread and refuel but can go as long as five hours without stopping. After eight hours in the water he’ll get back on the boat for a carb-heavy meal, he says, followed by an evening nap and a second meal at night. Lecomte, who hopes to complete the crossing in September, swims seven days a week, taking breaks only when he’s severely fatigued or if the weather conditions are too risky.
Meanwhile, the crew is busy using nets to collect samples of plastic in the water, often thousands of pieces per day, which are meticulously laid out and counted. The team estimates that in the past three weeks they’ve collected more than 17,000 pieces of microplastics and spotted more than 1,200 larger pieces of floating trash.
Lecomte’s swimming route is dictated by scientists from the University of Hawaii, using satellite imagery and ocean modeling to locate the highest concentration of debris. “Our goal is to arrive in California with the first transpacific dataset on plastic pollution, and engage as many people as possible to be part of the solution,” Lecomte says.
This expedition is also sponsored by Icebreaker, a New Zealand-based outdoor brand that emphasizes the use of natural materials in its clothing. His swim is drawing attention to the increasing prevalence of synthetic microfibers in the planet’s water systems. Studies have estimated that between 700,000 and 1m synthetic fibers are unleashed by just one load of washing in a machine.
Dr Sarah-Jeanne Royer at the University of San Diego specializes in plastic and microfiber degradation, and has been supporting Lecomte’s mission from land. She says the boat crew has collected seawater samples at a variety of locations, and found microfibers in every sample. “These synthetic fibers are so lightweight, that they’re being carried everywhere,” she says. “We’re breathing them.”
Despite enormous public interest, scientists still know little about the pervasiveness of ocean plastic pollution, says Royer. The vastness of the oceans makes the movement of plastics difficult to study, while gyres such as the one Lecomte is swimming near can keep plastic waste in a restricted area for long periods of time, before unleashing them towards the Hawaiian shorelines.
“We only know where 1% of the plastic waste is in the ocean,” she says. Indeed, a 2014 study found that the overwhelming majority of all plastic known to have entered the oceans cannot be accounted for. “So the big question for us is where is this plastic going in the ocean?”
She hopes the findings by Lecomte and his team will help begin to answer that question.
“This data is priceless. [The crew] could have done a campaign without collecting data. But they realized how important it is to collect these samples,” she says. “Without science, it’s not possible to prove the claims about plastics and its damaging effect on the environment.”