A 36-year-old woman just became the first person to swim around Easter Island. It took her 19 hours.
Mara Films / Kartemquin Films
- Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is one of the most remote places in the world.
- Sarah Ferguson, a 36-year-old South African swimmer, just became the first person to swim around the island. She logged 39.46 miles in 19 hours and 8 minutes.
- The area around Easter Island is inundated with plastic: It sits near a swirling vortex of plastic debris called the South Pacific Garbage Patch, and lots of tiny pieces float in the water or wash ashore.
Easter Island is one of the most remote islands in the world. It sits some 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, and is 1,200 miles from the nearest piece of land.
But even there, the water is filled with plastic.
That was the motivation for elite South African swimmer Sarah Ferguson, who recently completed a world-record swim around the island, covering 39.46 miles (63.5 kilometers) in 19 hours.
Ferguson, who used to swim for South Africa in international pool competitions, has taken to open waters in recent years to raise awareness about plastic pollution. She said Easter Island struck her as the perfect spot "because it's got one of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world."
So on Friday morning, she coated her face in a thick white layer of waterproof sunscreen, kicked off her flip-flops, shed her bathrobe, and dipped into the waters off the shore of Easter Island. At precisely 8:07 a.m., she started swimming.
Ferguson didn't get out of the water, touch a boat, or put on fins at any point in the swim. No one had ever circumnavigated the island that way before. One man tried in 2016, but quit after a very salty 26 hours and 52 minutes in the water.
"It was my toughest swim ever," Ferguson told Business Insider from a satellite phone as she recovered on Easter Island. Her tongue, she said, was still prickly from the salty waves, since the island happens to be in an extra salty corner of the Pacific - not at all like the ocean she's used to around South Africa.
Take a look at what Ferguson endured along her 19-hour, world-first swim around the island locals know as Rapa Nui.
On Friday morning, Ferguson received the all clear for her big swim.
Ferguson was not alone on the trip: Kayaker John McCarthy helped her stay on course and conserve energy. Another swimmer, Sarah Houston, swam alongside Ferguson when she was tired and served as her designated snack feeder.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is officially part of Chile.
It boasts the most remote airport in the world.
These Moai monoliths have been keeping watch over the island since as far back as the 10th century.
More recently, the island has become a reluctant home to a troubling amount of the world's trash.
"The world is trashing the ocean," Easter Island commune mayor Pedro Paoa told PBS Newshour. "And that trash, we are receiving it in our coasts."
The island's tourism boom isn't helping the plastic problem. There's only one dump on Easter Island.
Ferguson said she is committed to stopping plastic pollution. "I've always hated litter," she said. "I used to win recycling competitions in primary school."
Ferguson adhered to the gold standard of competitive English Channel swimming rules. She wore a regular bathing suit, cap, and goggles (no fins) and never touched a boat during the trip.
It was impossible for Ferguson to eat enough on the day of her mission to fully fuel the swim. So she fattened herself up before the trip with some "extra insulation."
Ferguson stopped every half hour for a snack along the way. Her swimming buddy, Houston, fed her so she wouldn't break any rules about touching a boat.
Ferguson said that when she is out swimming in open waters, her mind will sometimes "switch off," sending her into a meditative "zone out." But because this swim was so salty and difficult, it was a tougher mental challenge.
Although Ferguson said she doesn't usually listen to music while she swims, she admitted that there was some AC/DC involved in her journey.
Ferguson said she didn't see much sea life on the swim, save for a couple of fish. But there was plenty of plastic in the water.
During Ferguson's swim on Saturday, volunteers conducted a plastic cleanup on the island to support her mission.
Ferguson swam through the night, and said she enjoyed seeing the stars come out.
Ferguson finished her swim ahead of schedule, getting out of the water five hours earlier than she'd predicted.
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