Ben Lecomte's Trans-Pacific Swim Breaks the 1,000-Mile Mark
Now 1,000 nautical miles from Japan, Lecomte's swimming campaign across the Pacific for ocean health and conservation is kicking into high gear.
Far out in the Pacific Ocean, Ben Lecomte swam past a milestone this week.
Lecomte, who’s attempting to become the first man to swim across the Pacific in an effort to highlight ocean health and conservation, is now a distance of 1,000 nautical miles from his starting point at the Japanese port of Yokohama. (A nautical mile is 6,000 feet, or slightly longer than a statute mile.) Lecomte and the crew of the research sailboat Seeker have hit that mark despite battling seasickness aboard the 20-meter boat, being forced back to port by typhoons, and having to dodge the occasional cargo ship.
“It doesn’t change much to me,” Lecomte said of the benchmark. “My eyes are not too much on the milestones. But it’s important to have milestones to celebrate any progress.”
After more than six years of preparation and training, Lecomte and the Seeker crew set sail from Yokohama in June. Lecomte is spending about eight hours a day in the water, shooting for an average of about 30 miles a day with a boost from the currents of the North Pacific.
Swimming across the world’s largest ocean isn’t a purely athletic feat for Lecomte, who became the first man to swim across the Atlantic in 1998. It’s also aimed at documenting the problems facing the ocean environment and raising the public’s awareness about the importance of addressing them — and the major issue that he and the crew face each day is plastic.
The expedition team has collected more than 1,300 floating pieces of debris, and is scooping as many as four pieces of tiny plastic fragments out of the water per minute with a special net. It is also geotagging and tracking larger pieces of marine debris, like discarded fishing nets that can trap sea life like porpoises or turtles.
“Every single day we collect trash,” Lecomte remarked, noting that the situation is unchanged even 1,000 miles from land. “I’m truly shocked by the amount of plastic I find on my way every single day.”
Much of that plastic debris ends up drifting in the remote North Pacific Gyre, a swirling accumulation zone for Pacific currents northeast of Hawaii. Popularly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the name suggests a compact collection point, but the reality is that the patch itself is a sprawling expanse roughly 800 miles square.
The world’s oceans are increasingly polluted with a phenomenon that concerned advocates like the 5 Gyres Institute have dubbed “plastic smog,” a pervasive cloudy soup of plastics that are breaking down into smaller and smaller microplastic bits. The crew is conducting extensive sampling during Lecomte’s swim, including using water filters to strain tiny plastic fibers from seawater.
Lecomte said that he’s been struck by “how changing and living this ocean is.”
“I am very surprised by the amount of amazing encounters I made in the middle of nowhere — birds, jellyfish, swordfishes, turtles, dolphins, whales, and even a shark who followed me for two days,” he said. He said that the marine animals he’s encountered “are very curious and come close to me. I guess few of them have encountered humans before, and I look like a weird alien to them.”
After some close calls with shipping vessels closer to shore, the maritime traffic has slowed down but the volatility of the ocean has picked up.
“The good side of it is we don’t worry too much about collision risk anymore,” Lecomte said. But the sea “can be very flat and the next day very tumultuous. We face a variety of conditions and cross our fingers when we look at the weather reports.”
Lecomte eats voraciously to keep up his strength, consuming about 8,000 calories a day in a protein- and carbohydrate-rich diet that’s closely monitored by the crew. His sleep patterns have been less regular.
“I adapt to the conditions,” he said of his rest habits. “I don’t do straight nights. I wake up often because of the motion of the boat or the noises.”
When they’re not collecting plastic, he and the crew are also collecting data on eight subjects for more than a dozen scientific institutions back on shore. They’re recording sightings of giant phytoplankton, which cycle from shallow water to the depths to photosynthesize nutrients. They’re also collecting data on water temperatures, salinity, and pH — a bellwether of climate change, since the oceans are growing more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the air.
Members of the team like Maks Romeijin are also keeping close tabs on Lecomte’s heart function, bone density, and vision as he spends much of each day in the water. This can help doctors at NASA learn more about the effects of long-term, low-gravity space missions on astronauts. The crew is also collecting data on radioactive cesium, a nuclear fission byproduct released by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that followed Japan’s historic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts have been tracking how those particles have been drifting through the Pacific since the meltdowns in three of the plant’s reactors. They briefed him in advance on the risks he faced, if any.
“The particles are very diluted in the ocean,” Lecomte noted. “I was exposed to a higher concentration in the plane going to Japan, for example.”
The Swim is a multimedia venture that’s recorded on live video from the boat, a video series via Seeker’s website and social channels, and Discovery GO, as well as weekly updates on the Discovery cable channel. A full-length feature documentary of the trip is slated for 2019.
While the extraordinary distance covered so far is just a drop in the bucket for Lecomte, his momentum and steadfast conviction are keeping the team as focused as ever on the mission at hand.
“As I swim everyday, I see this wild and beautiful environment being affected by the virus of plastic,” he said. “Every stroke is dedicated to inspire people and find ways to rethink their plastic consumption on land.”