Ben Lecomte, the 51-year-old Frenchman from Austin, Texas takes a deep breath before plunging into the Pacific Ocean for a swim. While this may seem normal, nothing about this swim is. Lecomte is not entering the water from a beach but from a boat which is currently in the middle-of-nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, as Lecomte attempts to swim across it (from Tokyo to San Francisco). This will be the second ocean he has tackled, having swum across the Atlantic for cancer awareness in 1998.
The ocean activist recently reached the 1,000-mile mark of this historic swim and has had to overcome both physical and environmental setbacks such as seasickness, typhoons, and the reason he is doing this swim at all: plastic pollution. What plastic pollution is and how it harms oceanic animals has been discussed in a previous Forbes article.
“I remember being a little kid on the beach and never seeing plastic. And now when I go with my kids, on the water we always see plastic. It’s not going to change until we reduce our consumption and change our behavior.” said Lecomte in a phone interview from a boat that is traveling with him.
According to Lecomte, they find about two large plastic pieces and twenty microplastic pieces every five minutes. Food wrappers, bottles, balloons, buckets, plastic bags, ghost nets – you name it, he and the crew have probably seen it. “I have been doing open-water swimming for a long time and seeing the amount of plastic increase throughout the years. For me, it was just the natural thing to do – to do a swim and get the attention of the public to inspire people to lower their use of plastic. Our relationship with plastic has to change.” explained Lecomte. They are now close to areas with a high concentration of plastic, and may even swim by infamous the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“For quite some time, there has been a real desire to want to do something that really captures the public awareness of ocean health. The project has been in the works for quite some time. There has been a lot of logistics for the team to cover – the boat, the crew, the weather, the technology! Seeker and Discovery came into the project earlier in the year (May) and the swim launched in early June. His kids actually jumped into the water with him to start out the journey,” commented Seeker representative and VP of Business Operations April Abeyta via a phone interview. “We are really learning as we go.”
Lecomte’s historic swim has been seven years in the making and is the first citizen science endeavor of its kind, as he and his team are working with 27 science institutions including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution during this expedition. “There’s a lot of things this environment afford from a scientific perspective. We’re able to leverage this expedition to get new learnings out of that environment that we don’t necessarily get access to. Everything from logistics to preparing supplies to shark-repellent technology.” explained Abeyta. Marine science researchers are obtaining data about the plastic they find, plankton samples, and the different sounds in the ocean to name a few projects. As for NASA? They’re interested in the physical changes the constant exercise in a low-gravity environment having on his body, monitoring everything from vitals (like his heart function and bone density) to what his radioactive exposure is like. The data gathered will help them better gauge how our bodies hold up in these low-gravity conditions, with the results paving the foundation for future space travel.
Lecomte didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to tackle the largest ocean: “I’ve been a swimmer for a long time. It’s a part of my daily routine to train, to swim, to cross-train. The last few years, I’ve focused on swimming to get ready for this.” He makes it sound almost easy, but the reality is that he has trained for several years and now is in the water for about eight hours a day covering about 30 miles on average. While no pool or short oceanic swim can truly prepare you for conditions in the middle of an ocean, not to mention how much Vaseline he must go through to prevent chafing, Lecomte says the hardest thing was not the physical toll on his body but being essentially alone with his mind for such long periods.
Any competitive cross-runner is no stranger to the phrase Lecomte used, “Mind over matter.” He elaborated, saying, “Knowing you are going to do the same thing over and over, with limited stimuli around you… you are really in a bubble. Your mind has to be somewhere else- that’s where the challenge is.” For eight hours a day, he only hears the lapping of water and sees a blue never-ending expanse that is obstructed by his arm covered in a neoprene suit. But he’s gotten lucky and had some wonderful surprises pop up in his endeavors, such as sharks and albatross. And while sharks tend to scare most swimmers, Lecomte reminisced on his encounter with a shortfin mako calling in a ” beautiful, curious animal.”
In a few hours, Lecomte will hop on a rubber dinghy with some crew and head to the precise location where he stopped swimming before, using a GPS tracker for accuracy. The crew will point him in the direction he needs to go before he slips under the waves and he is on his way. If he is not swimming, he is eating (an intake of about 8,000 calories) and sleeping. Autumn is coming to the northern hemisphere, providing new challenges for the crew in regards to currents, weather, and oceanic marine life. They work with experts to make sure conditions are safe for all; unsafe conditions grounded the team in the beginning.
But, the bad weather has not demoralized Lecomte or his team. Their mission is too great to give up. “At the end of the day, this is really about why we wanted to do this [expedition]: to make a difference and reduce plastic pollution. Our goal is to bring awareness and spark action to think about their own [plastic consumption] and how to reduce that.” Abeyta remarked.
“I hope people [take away from this expedition] that there is a problem in the ocean with the amount of plastic that is there. That is going to affect sea life. I hope they realize that the solution is in our hands.” ended Lecomte, ready to go in for a few hours of swimming.
Whether he finishes this latest adventure or not, he has our attention.
Check out Ben Lecomte’s website for more information. Viewers can tune-in to top science publisher Seeker.com and its social channels to watch daily videos and live moments from the expedition, with weekly updates also airing on Discovery. Follow Ben’s journey at Seeker.com/TheSwim.