Every day, Ben Lecomte wakes up at 6 AM, has a “huge” breakfast of eggs, bacon, bread, and protein shakes (he consumes about 8,000 calories a day), then gets into the Pacific Ocean, and swims for eight to nine hours. It’s not your typical routine.
Lecomte, 51, is a French long-distance swimmer currently attempting to become the first person to ever swim across the Pacific Ocean, with a goal of raising awareness of ocean pollution.
“I have seen the amount of plastic washing up on the beaches rising at an alarming rate over the past 30 years of swimming,” Lecomte told me via a phone interview before he set out for his daily swim. “This has been a big eye-opener because I’m seeing a big amount of plastic on the surface of the water everywhere—by the coast but also 1,000 miles out.”
On his daily swim, Lecomte takes a few short breaks to guzzle down soup and water that’s kept for him on an accompanying dinghy. When he’s done, his team drops a GPS pin of his exact location so they can return the next morning. Then they take the dinghy back to the sailboat that’s cruising nearby to eat, plan for the next day, and sleep.
Lecomte started on the coast of Japan in June, and he’s swum more than 1,200 nautical miles. He’s got about 4,300 miles to go before he reaches the coast of California. While Lecomte swims, his team on the sailboat has been collecting as much plastic as they can and marking larger items, hoping they will be picked up by larger ships that pass by.
Lecomte told me they see an average of two pieces of plastic on the surface every five minutes, and four pieces of visible microplastic, which looks like bits of colorful, hard confetti, every minute.
Interacting with the ocean wildlife has been the most incredible part of the swim, Lecomte told me—fish will swim alongside him or bump up against his stomach—but it’s disturbing to see the wildlife next to the endless amounts of pollution.
“You’ll see a net floating around and then you’ll see a whale or a fish—two things that should not be around one another because they’ll get caught,” Lecomte said.
Plastic pollution makes its way to the ocean from land in both large chunks such as floating soda bottles, as well as broken-down microplastics. Studies have shown that more than eight million tons of new plastic pollution is dumped into our oceans every year, and the numbers is expected to rise. Plastic kills more than 1 million birds and more than 100,000 marine animals every year, according to UNESCO, and microplastics contaminate everything from the fish we eat to the salt we sprinkle on our food.
Ocean currents will often create gyres that draw huge concentrations of microplastics into massive “garbage patches” in the middle of the ocean. You may have a mental image of giant floating garbage islands, but the majority of them are made up of microplastics, much of it too small to see with the naked eye (though not too small for fish to accidentally ingest).
Lecomte will encounter the largest of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, towards the midway point of his journey this winter. It measures more than 600,000 square miles—twice the size of Texas, and is approximately 1,000 nautical miles off the California coast. Microplastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch total an estimated 88,000 tons.
But Lecomte told me because of the amount of plastic he has to swim through daily, he doesn’t think the patch will even stand out.
“We don’t see it, but this pollution is directly tied to our behavior and relationship with plastic on land and we need to change our habits,” Lecomte said. “It isn’t easy, but it’s having such a big impact on our climate.”