If you pull up Google Maps, then point and click your way west from the coast of California, and pause about midway to Hawaii, your screen will fill up with a digital proxy of the ocean: a pure rectangle of blue. From a computer, it’s easy to imagine the pristine waves of the Pacific spreading out unbroken for a thousand miles in all directions.
But the reality is much less pleasant. That swath of water is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of plastic trash in all the world’s oceans. The Ocean Cleanup, an organization working to remove plastic from the water, estimates that 1.6 million square kilometers, an area three times the size of France, are fouled with trash. And French open-water swimmer Ben Lecomte just spent most of this summer swimming through it.
Lecomte’s journey, dubbed The Vortex Swim, began in Hawaii on June 17 and ended this past weekend in San Francisco. He, along with a crew of nine, lived aboard the sailboat I Am Ocean and traveled through the garbage patch, also called the “plastic vortex,” to raise awareness around plastic pollution and conduct research on how plastic is affecting the water and the creatures within it. Ben’s goal was to swim at least 300 nautical miles through the highest concentration of plastic—a goal he achieved on August 5, 55 days into the trip. In total, he logged 338 nautical miles in the ocean, swimming a few hours at a time and living on the boat with the rest of the crew.
The swim followed Lecomte’s unsuccessful attempt to swim across the Pacific Ocean last summer, when damaged sails forced him to end the journey in Hawaii. But this time, Lecomte said, the swimming wasn’t the main event. Building off research they did during the 2018 Pacific crossing, he and the crew have gathered a wealth of information on plastic in the ocean during this summer’s journey.
“I always try to use the swim as a way to get attention and raise awareness,” Lecomte told Men’s Journal via satellite phone while aboard I Am Ocean. “Then the swim becomes secondary.”
While Ben swam, Drew McWhirter was in charge of the science aboard the vessel. That meant keeping track of a dizzying number of experiments, protocols, and samples. They used nets to capture microplastics, the particles that remain when larger plastic items get broken up; filtered seawater to capture microfibers, miniscule plastic fibers shed from clothing; intercepted devices other scientists previously attached to large floating plastic items; and cut and froze samples of whatever fish the crew caught for dinner. To do all this research, and find good sailing weather, and keep Ben in the water, they had to follow a zig-zag course across the vortex. It wasn’t easy work, but McWhirter hopes it’ll pay off.
“You get dulled to the plastic after you see it every single day,” he said. “I think a lot of what we’ve experienced out here is going to reveal itself in the data.”
Drew and the team conducted these tests in partnership with several scientists and organizations, including Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer, oceanographer and post doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using the samples brought back to California on the I Am Ocean, she’ll assess the distribution of microfibers in the ocean, how they relate to microplastics, and how they affect fish, especially the ones we eat.
That last link is important, she said, because we don’t currently have a lot of data on how plastic impacts the health of marine life. Part of what makes the trash so dangerous is that it attracts other human-generated waste material, called persistent organic pollutants, or POPS. These chemicals become attached to the plastic, and if a fish ingests it, it’s also swallowing “a cocktail of toxic molecules,” Royer explained. Once she receives the fish samples, she’ll examine them to see if microfibers are embedded in the flesh. If people aren’t motivated to cut back on plastic because of ocean pollution, they might do something if it ultimately ends up in their sushi.
“If you want to change habits of consumers,” Royer said, “you have to eventually link it to their own way of living, and their health.”
Royer says the Vortex Swim will be an invaluable source of information. One of the reasons is that the boat moved so slowly through the garbage patch. This allowed the crew to collect data in the area over the course of months, rather than just a few days. The more data Royer and the other scientists receive, the more detailed their models can be.
“Given the size of the vessel and their mission, I think they are doing a fantastic job,” she said.
Meanwhile, Lecomte was out in the water swimming—along with other crew members who were taking photos and videos, or just hopping in for a dip. Although not strictly scientific, Lecomte found that having a set of eyes under the waves sometimes helped guide their research: He could see microplastics floating in the water column as he swam, and sometimes he helped direct where to deploy sampling nets.
When I asked him how he trained for this swim, Lecomte brushed it off—he has already swum across the Atlantic and from Japan to Hawaii, and he has basically been training his whole life, he said. But that doesn’t mean this journey was easy. He had to sustain himself on freeze-dried food and pasta and take multivitamins to make up for the lack of fresh fruit and veggies. Sleeping was difficult on a cramped, rocking boat. And he dealt with these challenges while pushing his body to the limit in the water.
Adam Hill, the medic on board, tested Lecomte’s heart rate, blood pressure, and fat tissue each day to make sure he was healthy enough to swim. His fat supplies dwindled to dangerously low levels, but not even that or a painful ear infection kept him out of the water.
“His determination and willpower has plowed him through,” said Hill.
Swimming hundreds of miles through the ocean is an impressive achievement, but Lecomte isn’t basking in the glory. The experience has driven home just how much junk is in the water, and made it clear to him and the crew that our oceans are in trouble.
“I remember as a child playing on the beach in France and never seeing plastic,” he said. “Now when I go on any beach with my children we can never find one without plastic.”