Ocean Sciences News

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Swim Nears Conclusion

Long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte seeks to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean.

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Long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte will complete his Vortex Swim to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean on Saturday, 31 August.

The swim took Lecomte, 52, purposely through the largest plastic accumulation zone in the ocean, the 1.6-million-square-kilometer Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the eastern North Pacific Gyre between Hawaii and California.

Map of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of two trash vortexes in the North Pacific Ocean basin. Credit: NOAA

During the 5,370–nautical mile (nm) journey on board the I Am Ocean sailing yacht, Lecomte swam more than 335 nm to observe specific locations of the patch. Scientists from the University of Hawai‘i (UH) directed Lecomte’s swimming route using satellite imagery and ocean modeling to locate the highest concentrations of debris.

During Lecomte’s time in the water and during the entire 80-day expedition, he and his crew have provided scientific data to researchers from UH and other institutions about microplastics, water toxicity, and marine life. He and the crew have also tagged large pieces of debris with tracking devices.

The current swim, sponsored by natural performance apparel maker icebreaker, does not compare in length to Lecomte’s 1998 swim across the Atlantic or his 1,500-nm swim in the west Pacific in 2008. However, the Vortex Swim is calling attention to the problem of ocean plastic pollution. Between 4.8 and 12.78 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010, an increasing concern because of its impact on marine life and potentially on people as well. A 2016 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation noted that there are more than 150 million metric tons of plastics in the oceans and that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.

Eos spoke with Lecomte, a resident of Round Rock, Texas, when his ship was a few days west of its San Francisco destination.

Eos: Why did you do the Vortex Swim?

Lecomte: When I was very little and playing in the sand, I remember not seeing any plastic in the sand. But now every time I take children on a beach, I see [plastic in] sand everywhere. I have been doing open water [swims] for a long time and spending a lot of time in the water and close to the environment. For the past 10 years or so, I’ve thought about ways to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution. The best way is to do it through a swim and to use the swim as the platform to get attention.

Eos: What was it like for you to swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Lecomte: When I swim, I can see exactly what is in the water column. There has been plastic in high concentration, microplastic, around me, [which is] something we couldn’t see from the boat or we couldn’t [infer] from the amount of plastic and microplastic that we collected from our nets….Right in the middle of the garbage patch was a very tight concentration [of plastic] everywhere. If I had seen that type of water on the beach, I would not have decided to go swim in that water.

Photo of microplastics in petri dishes
Lecomte and his crew collected microplastics like these during the journey through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Credit: @thevortexswim, @osleston

Eos: What was the most disturbing thing that you saw during your swim?

Lecomte: One category is the fishing gear that we saw, a lot of it. The other category is household products that we use every day, like a toothbrush or a razor or a bottle of water or a bottle of shampoo….Very often, when [plastic] is broken into little pieces, you cannot see the small pieces, and you cannot recognize what is the source. But when you see the bigger debris, you know that it’s something you have at your house; you know it’s something that you have used in the past. That’s something we have in our lives. We create that problem.

Eos: You have described plastic in the ocean as plastic smog. What do you mean?

Lecomte: Once it’s broken into small pieces, the microplastic is in high density. It’s not one area where you have plastics that are aggregated together…so it creates kind of smog or a soup. It’s not in an area where you just find microplastic and you can take it out and you solve [the] problem.

Eos: What was your most amazing experience during the swim?

Lecomte: The sea life. The day I was swimming near sperm whales was an amazing moment….As a sperm whale was passing beside me, it was looking at me. It was very intense to be in that moment, to share that moment. At the end of that day, when I went back on the ship, I found we had our highest microplastic [count],…counting over 3,000 pieces. That was very insightful for me to know that you have amazing creatures living in that soup of microplastic.

Eos: What can be done about plastic in the ocean?

Lecomte: First of all, we don’t have to use single-use plastic….Plastic is still a good product, I think. But we have to understand that once we have finished using that product [we have] to find ways to upcycle it or to recycle it….It’s not only human behavior that needs to change, but also the plastic industry needs to change its practices so not as much plastic that cannot be recycled is being used.

Eos: What is your message to others about the plastics problem?

Lecomte: I want to provide an unusual way to bring awareness because swimming, and having swum in the plastic [patch] for so many miles, and having lived through it, is a different perspective on the issue. It’s not just talking about the amount of plastic that is there….It’s about talking about a real life and being a real person with real emotions about this message.

Eos: Do you think your swim has had an impact?

Lecomte: There is no silver bullet to the problem.…But I know that at the same time, reading from feedback that we get from people following us, we are inspiring people to understand a little more about the problem and to change their habits….The problem wasn’t created overnight, so it will also be a long haul to resolve it.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Great Pacific Garbage Patch swim nears conclusion, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO131935. Published on 30 August 2019.
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