I think most of us can agree with endurance athlete and swimmer Ben Lecomte when he says, "The ocean is in peril right now."
But aside from giving money to charities, forgoing plastic shopping bags, and saying "no thanks" to plastic straws, it doesn't feel like there's much individuals can do. (Of course, if you eat fish, making sustainable choices is another direct way to impact ocean health.)
But Lecomte thought there was something else he could do: swim across the Pacific Ocean. This feat has never been achieved before, and the idea was to to raise awareness of the plight of the ocean — and to get some science done, too.
On June 5, 2018, he started his 5,500-mile swim in Japan with the plan of making it to San Francisco, one eight-hour day of swimming after another. Lecomte was accompanied by a sailing yacht, the Discoverer, complete with a crew of six who documented his journey, but after completing over 1,500 miles of the swim, the yacht "suffered irreparable damages to its mainsail after facing an unprecedented storm," according to Seeker, a partner on the project. The team evaluated its options and ended the swimming portion of the project.
According to a release, it wasn't just the boat problems that stopped the swim: The team "encountered an unexpected amount of garbage and plastic pollution, unprecedented typhoons and severe storms and technical challenges, nearly all of which can be linked to global climate change."
Swimming for stewardship — and science
This swim wasn't just about creating a new world record in swimming; it was about raising awareness of the impact of pollution and climate change. "It was very disappointing decision....swimming was a big part of the project. But it's not the main purpose," said Lecomte. He and his team are going to continue the science-research part of the trip — "So we don't lose the impact that we are having," said Lecomte. Despite not making it to the end goal, the team has already gotten plenty of good work done.
Lecomte and his team managed to collect more than 1,100 samples along the course of the voyage, doing citizen science in collaboration with 27 science institutions like NASA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
"We're not stopping the important goal of collecting the data on plastic and microplastics across the oceans. That's something we are still doing and it's very important," said LeComte.
They also took data covering plastic pollution, mammal migrations, pH, salinity, temperature, radioactivity and the physical and mental toll the long-distance swim on Lecomte, which will add to to what scientists know about extreme endurance.
Lecomte and his team's next stop is Hawaii, and he says he will still swim through part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a roughly 60,000-square-mile area of ocean between California and Hawaii that has varying levels of floating plastic debris brought together by ocean currents.
"The goal of the swim is to get the attention on the state of the ocean and get people to take action and change their behavior, such as eliminating single-use plastic," said Lecomte, prior to leaving for the swim — and that's still the goal.
To follow the project further, tune in to The Swim's main landing page along with Seeker's social platforms.
This wasn't his first big swim
If his name sounds familiar, that's because Lecomte completed a swim across the Atlantic in 1998, traveling from Massachusetts to France. That swim raised funds for cancer research in memory of his father.
How does an athlete even prepare for such a feat?
"I have never stopped swimming, running or bicycling since my last swim," Lecomte told MNN, prior to beginning his Pacific challenge. "I have been doing a fair amount of cross-training activities in preparation, but the real training will be when I start the swim. The first two to three weeks will important because my body will have to adapt to the new conditions and environment."
The Pacific Ocean is well-known for its rough seas and storms, and as the release detailed, Lecomte and his team encountered dangerous conditions (they had to turn back to Japan once already after the swim had begun due to storms).
How did he prepare? "Besides typical long-distance swim gear — a wet suit, goggles, snorkel and fins — Lecomte wore a wrist-mounted, shark-repelling device and a waterproof biometric monitor. Data from the medical monitor transmitted health information to the crew as well as a team of doctors on land," according to Seeker.
Despite the setbacks, the project is far from over: "For the moment, I'm not focusing on trying again, I'm focusing on finishing the work we started," said Lecomte. "The swim has been a real adventure."
Editor's note: This story was written in May 2018 and has been updated with new information.