Ben Lecomte is used to swimming long distances. In 1998, he swam eight hours a day for 73 days from Massachusetts across the Atlantic Ocean to France — 3,716 miles, all to raise money for cancer research.
Now, over 20 years later, the 52-year-old is traversing the Pacific Ocean, swimming from Honolulu to San Francisco, this time to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and to gather data on it for scientists researching the phenomenon.
Lecomte has seen firsthand how much plastic pollution is gathering in the Pacific. He is swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been called the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, as he travels from Hawaii to California. Lecomte and his crew have been in the vortex of the garbage patch “most of the days” since they left on June 13, according to Paul Lecomte, Ben’s nephew and a member of the crew.
It makes sense: The estimated size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 1.6 million square kilometers, according to researchers. That’s twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France, where Lecomte grew up.
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He’s been aware of the gigantic mass of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean for about 10 years. His awareness began on the beach.
“You’d look at the sand and you’d look at where you are and you’d always see plastic there, which is something I never saw when I was growing up in France,” he told SFGate during a break from swimming on the 64th day of the expedition.
As he spoke, he and his crew were about 900 miles west of San Francisco.
“Now, whenever I go with my kids, I always find plastic on the beach,” he said. “And that has been kind of a turning point for me.”
Lecomte reached the center of the plastic vortex on July 10. According to a press release about his expedition, the crew found a nearly 1,000 percent increase in the level of pollution from microplastics (less than five millimeters long) compared to the concentration in previous samples taken.
One of the more shocking sights Lecomte has seen while wading through the garbage patch has been the “amazing sea life” living in some of the areas with the highest concentration of plastic pollution. The day that Lecomte swam within 10 meters of a sperm whale 10 meters, for instance, was the same day he and his crew measured 3,000 parts of microplastic per cubic meter of water, the highest concentration of microplastics they’d seen the entire time they’ve been at sea.
In the two months that Lecomte has been swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, he’s seen a frogfish stuck inside a plastic bottle, an albatross trying to eat plastic debris, and a half-inch by 2-inch plastic fragment in the stomach of a mahi mahi.
Icebreaker, the New Zealand-based outdoor clothing brand that’s sponsoring the trip, also said in a press release that the crew have found toothbrushes, plastic bottles, bags and toys that they say are becoming artificial reefs for marine life.
In addition to collecting data on and raising awareness of plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, Lecomte and his crew are also collecting data on the presence of synthetic fibers in the Pacific. Lecomte said the crew doesn’t have the equipment onboard the ship to measure the synthetic fiber pollution, but are collecting samples that will be analyzed when they get back on land.
According to a Guardian article on Lecomte’s voyage, studies estimate that hundreds of thousands of synthetic microfibers are released into the world’s water system by just one load of laundry.
On August 31, Lecomte will swim onto the shore of Crissy Field, and he and his crew will give a recap of his expedition and host a panel. By the end of the trip, Lecomte will have swam 300 nautical miles and completed the world’s “first unified transpacific survey of plastic pollution.” The data that he collects will be used by scientists across the globe, including those at the University of Hawaii, NASA, and research institutes in France and the Netherlands.
Lecomte said he hopes the expedition and the findings that come out of it raise people’s awareness of how they contribute to problem of plastic pollution, inspiring people to change their habits.
“I know that there is no silver bullet for the problem,” he said. “The plastic that is in the ocean comes from us human beings on land and not doing the right thing. It’s because we’re either using single-use plastic we shouldn’t use or when we use plastic it’s not being discarded properly.
“And that’s an attitude that needs to change and I know I’m not going to change the problem or bring a solution, but hopefully I’ll raise awareness and people will change their habits,” he added. “It’s something that needs to be changed.”
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Great-Pacific-Garbage-Patch-ben-lecomte-SF-14361858.php.