Talking Trash? Adventurer Ben Lecomte Embarks on Swimming Through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Ben-Lecomte-Equiptment
Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim

By Sarah Berman, Swimming World College Intern.

Ben Lecomte doesn’t swim for performance accolades: he swims to spur global change. “I’m not an Olympic swimmer. I am an adventurer who likes to swim.” He does not set out every day to win a gold medal and stand on top of a podium; his focus is being a voice for our oceans and drawing awareness to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most recently, Lecomte was in the spotlight for being the first person to attempt a swim from Tokyo to San Francisco, which he was ultimately unable to complete due to equipment failure. He has since refined his focus on making a larger statement about our polluted oceans with a focus on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest offshore plastic accumulation zone in the world and is located between Hawaii and California, which is exactly Lecomte’s route. According to The Ocean Cleanup, 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastics enter the oceans each year. Since plastic is often less dense than water, the garbage will not sink in the sea and poses a threat to swimmers, boats and wildlife. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was formed by plastics that enter the ocean which eventually join together through converging currents.

Ben-Lecomte-with-crate

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim
Lecomte finds a plastic crate during his swim.

The plastics do not break down until they degrade into smaller plastic pieces called microplastics. Degradation occurs over an extended period of time due to exposure to the sun, waves and marine life. As plastics continue to enter our oceans, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch only grows from its current size of 1.6 million kilometers. This mass of pollution is twice the surface area of Texas and three times bigger than Lecomte’s homeland of France.

The Mission

Lecomte’s mission began when he became concerned about the environment in which his children would grow up. “As a young child, I don’t remember seeing any plastic while playing on the beach. Now, I cannot find any beach free of plastic. In less than a generation, we have massively negatively impacted our oceans, and this is what we are going to pass on to our children. I cannot let that happen,” he tells Swimming World.

Ben-Lecomte

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim

The Adventurer

Lecomte discovered his love for the water as a teenager but was never a traditional club swimmer. “I never really liked pools – the environment is too controlled for me. I decided to swim mostly in the ocean. Out in the open, no two days are the same. It is a different experience each time, which I enjoy,” he explains.

Lecomte is no stranger to swimming in the world’s largest oceans. He says his expeditions are more of an adventure than an athletic performance: “Mind over matter is the key. I train my mind as much as I train my body.” In 1998, he became the first person to swim across the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard. The expedition took 73 days and spanned from Cape Cod, Mass., to Quiberon, France.

Ben-Lecomte-Above-Water

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim

In terms of preparing for the ocean’s unknown, Lecomte focuses on controlling the controllable. “We can usually monitor what is coming our way and take proper action. This is especially true for the weather and sea life. I avoid swimming when there is bad visibility and other conditions I don’t feel comfortable with.

When asked about sharks lurking the waters, he responded with, “I can use a shark repellent, but from my own experience, sharks – like any other big pelagic fish – are curious and come around before going on their way.”

His Record-Setting Attempt

Ben-Lecomte-Underwater

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim

After 165 days and 1,500 nautical miles of swimming, Lecomte and his crew were forced to end the journey across the Pacific due to mainsail damages. However, Lecomte never set out to break his own world record for the longest swim. Instead, he explains,

“Trying to break the world record was another platform for me to bring attention to marine plastic pollution. Of course I was disappointed and frustrated to have to stop last year, especially because it was due to equipment failure, but my overall goal and motivation has not changed.”

The Vortex Swim

On June 14, 2019, Lecomte set out on The Vortex Swim, an exploration of the Pacific Ocean’s most polluted area between Hawaii and California. His goal is to swim 300nm to represent the 300 million tons of plastic humans produce each year. While swimming, the crew will collect information on the debris, which will be the first trans-pacific dataset on plastic pollution.

Lecomte is prepared to inspire change in how people use plastics. This swim will provide people with a unique perspective on the polluted ocean and its impact on the marine life. In addition to the pollution, Lecomte is bracing himself for painful conditions in northern latitudes where the water temperature is in the low 60s Fahrenheit.

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim
Lecomte carries trash found on day 11.

Lecomte explains that there is far less performance pressure for The Vortex Swim: “I am not swimming from point A to point B, but swimming through areas of scientific interests.” Scientific partners of The Vortex Swim will analyze the samples and data collected, which will add to the common knowledge of plastic and synthetic fiber pollution in the ocean. According to Lecomte, synthetic micro fibers pose the biggest threat to the next generation. “We are beginning to study the negative impact of synthetic microfibers on human life. Each one of us can make that choice by washing less and seeking natural fiber alternatives,” he shares.

Save Our Oceans

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Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim
Lecomte cleaning micro plastics from the the sand in Hawaii before departure.

In regards to cleaning up the garbage found throughout The Vortex Swim, Lecomte has an interesting response.

“I think trying to deploy a massive solution to clean up the ocean is the wrong approach. We need to limit the source of pollution. The solution is in our own hands. It is up to us to limit our plastic use, find other alternatives, and when we use plastics, make sure its not ending up in the ocean.” -Ben Lecomte

Debris-Fish-plastic-pollution

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim
Lecomte finds a yellow crate along with a school of fish.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an environmental problem that has existed for way too long. Not only are the plastics destroying the wildlife and its surrounding habitat, but also the University of Hawaii at Manoa recently came to a starling discovery. According to their research, greenhouse gasses are emitted when plastics degrade in the sunlight. After testing seven different types of plastics, The Scientist reported, “All gave off methane and ethylene in the days after being exposed to sunlight, they found, but polyethylene, which is used to make plastic bags, was the worst offender.”

Limiting our plastic usage goes beyond saving the turtles – our entire planet is at risk. Climate change occurring naturally is already a massive issue to tackle. Now, we have to factor in all of the additional human implications. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t brought up enough in the environmental discussion. We need to accept responsibility for the problem we started and put an end to it. Even making the smallest changes to limit plastic use will make a huge difference if everyone takes part.

trash-ohahu-shore

Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @TheVortexSwim
Trash found on the Oahu Coastline.

Lecomte wants to inspire people to change their daily habits to limit plastic use and hopes their actions will inspire others to follow. He has three suggestions that anyone can do to cut down plastic use. “Instead of single-use plastic bags, ask for paper. It’s even better to bring your own. If you need a straw, get a metal or paper one. Use a metal or reusable water bottle and refill it instead of buying a plastic one.”

Are you ready to become part of the solution?

Follow Lecomte and his crew’s journey through the live tracker, on Instagram @TheVortexSwim, or online at benlecomte.com and movetonatural.com

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Jennifer Parks

    Bravo, Ben! We do need to keep paying attention to our use of plastics, especially those plastic bags! Thank you for reminding all of us! Keep up the great work, Ben.
    p.s. I live next to Lake Michigan, and we need to protect our lakes, too!