A 52-year-old man is swimming through the Pacific Garbage Patch. He's caught disgusting trash, including a toothbrush and a toilet seat.

Plastic swim Ben Life on plastic bottleMarine life latches on to plastic adrift at sea.The Vortex Swim/Photo credit: @osleston

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, swimmer Ben Lecomte is kicking through trash.

Lecomte swam across the Atlantic Ocean - from the US to France - in 1998, and he tried to become the first person to swim across the Pacific last year, traveling 1,753 miles before calling it quits.

This year, he decided to plow through a swirling vortex of garbage between Hawaii and California known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

"I'm not trying to go for any record," Lecomte told Business Insider from the sailboat that's following him as he swims. "It's a unique opportunity to show exactly what is under the surface."

The human race dumps about 8 million pounds of plastic trash into the oceans every year. For context, the average 16.9-ounce bottle of water weighs less than 13 grams, so there are at least 35 water bottles in a pound of trash. But of course, bottles are not the only litter in the sea: there are abandoned fishing nets, laundry baskets, toilet seats, toothbrushes, and much more.

Currents sweep up a lot of this plastic and carry it to a handful of locations in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well known of these trash vortices - it's double the size of Texas and now holds 79,000 tons of trash.

That's what Lecomte is swimming through. He wants the effort to bring more awareness to the issue of plastic consumption and show people what the garbage patch really looks like.

"I want to share what it is through swimming and bring people with me," he said.

Here's what Lecomte's journey has looked like so far.
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Lecomte wanted to log at least 300 nautical miles in the garbage patch (roughly equivalent to 345 miles) because it's estimated that the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic every year. So he is swimming more than one mile for each million tons.

Lecomte wanted to log at least 300 nautical miles in the garbage patch (roughly equivalent to 345 miles) because it's estimated that the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic every year. So he is swimming more than one mile for each million tons.

This isn't his first big swim in open water. He swam across the Atlantic — from Massachusetts to France — in 1998. Upon arrival, he proposed to the woman who's now his wife, Trinh Dang.

This isn't his first big swim in open water. He swam across the Atlantic — from Massachusetts to France — in 1998. Upon arrival, he proposed to the woman who's now his wife, Trinh Dang.

Last year, Lecomte attempted to become the first person to swim across the Pacific. He made it about a third of the way from Japan to California before he called it quits.

Last year, Lecomte attempted to become the first person to swim across the Pacific. He made it about a third of the way from Japan to California before he called it quits.

Lecomte told Business Insider at the time that he was already considering a swim across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

"It's important that we go to the patch, and that we take samples from the patch, that I open that window and share my experience," he said. "What I see, what I feel, and how I feel when I swim through the patch."

In June, Lecomte set out from Hawaii in a 67-foot yacht, headed toward the patch. He's traveling with nine other crew members.

In June, Lecomte set out from Hawaii in a 67-foot yacht, headed toward the patch. He's traveling with nine other crew members.

The group — which includes sailors, a doctor, a cook, storytellers, videographers, and scientists conducting experiments — eat, sleep, and work on the boat.

According to his live tracker, Lecomte has surpassed his symbolic goal already: He has swam at least 323 nautical miles and spent 230 hours kicking through the waves.

According to his live tracker, Lecomte has surpassed his symbolic goal already: He has swam at least 323 nautical miles and spent 230 hours kicking through the waves.

"If I swim 400 or 500 or 200, it's just a number," Lecomte said. "What we are focusing on is particular areas — it's very important for us to get data — and also in those areas for me to swim, so we have a very unique perspective on what it is we find in the water."

When Lecomte starts swimming each day, a support dinghy follows him, making sure doesn't get lost and feeding him soup and bread every two or three hours.

When Lecomte starts swimming each day, a support dinghy follows him, making sure doesn't get lost and feeding him soup and bread every two or three hours.

Lecomte said one of the greatest misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it's one big trash heap. "It’s not a big floating island," he said.

Lecomte said one of the greatest misconceptions about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that it's one big trash heap. "It’s not a big floating island," he said.

Rather, it's an area of the ocean where the current conditions usher in trash.

"There is much more plastic debris floating here in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch than anywhere that I ever swam," Lecomte said.

In addition to plastic bags and big pieces of trash, Lecomte also comes into contact with a lot of small particles in the water. Some attach to his wetsuit.

In addition to plastic bags and big pieces of trash, Lecomte also comes into contact with a lot of small particles in the water. Some attach to his wetsuit.

"The most disgusting thing is the amount of microplastic that we capture in our nets every day," he said.

"The most disgusting thing is the amount of microplastic that we capture in our nets every day," he said.

Plastics never fully decompose, so when they break down, what's left is microplastic: tiny particles with a diameter that ranges from about the width of a sesame seed down to that of a single human hair.

On board the ship, scientists periodically drop a net in the water to capture and count microplastics in the patch. They leave the net in the waves for a half hour at a time, and Lecomte said the crew captures around 36 plastic pieces every minute.

"And that is just an average," he said. "Our biggest tow has been over 3,000 pieces in 30 minutes."

Lecomte even found microplastic stuck to his face after a swim.

Lecomte even found microplastic stuck to his face after a swim.

Microplastic sampling is just one part of the science work on the ship. Lecomte's team is conducting 11 scientific research projects on board, and partnering with more than dozen different research institutions to do so.

Microplastic investigations are being done in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Other projects include a look at microfibers in partnership with Scripps, and a study of how plastic debris accumulates and moves in currents with the University of Hawaii.

Lecomte said that out at sea, he encounters some in-your-face wildlife. "Very often, albatross come when I am swimming, land beside me, and peck on my hand, peck on my wetsuit," he said. "You’re in the middle of the ocean and a bird comes out of nowhere and he’s very curious and not afraid at all. That’s a nice feeling.”

Lecomte said that out at sea, he encounters some in-your-face wildlife. "Very often, albatross come when I am swimming, land beside me, and peck on my hand, peck on my wetsuit," he said. "You’re in the middle of the ocean and a bird comes out of nowhere and he’s very curious and not afraid at all. That’s a nice feeling.”

But Lecomte is also worried about the birds' health.

"I can imagine what is in their stomachs," he said, since it's likely that in addition to his own gear, the albatrosses also peck on floating plastic.

Manufactured plastic as we know it has been around for about 110 years, and Lecomte says we could easily get by with much less of it. "Single-use plastic is something that we can stop using," he said.

Manufactured plastic as we know it has been around for about 110 years, and Lecomte says we could easily get by with much less of it. "Single-use plastic is something that we can stop using," he said.

The trash Lecomte's team has found at sea isn't all single-use, though. It also includes at least one toilet seat.

The trash Lecomte's team has found at sea isn't all single-use, though. It also includes at least one toilet seat.

"At the end of another disheartening day of swimming through this soup of plastic and to light up the mood we took some funny pictures with a toilet seat that [crew members] Josh and Heather found during the day," Lecomte said on Instagram.

"The items that we all use end up right here," Lecomte added. "Because we don't always manage [plastic] the right way on land, and then the ocean becomes a big trash."

"The items that we all use end up right here," Lecomte added. "Because we don't always manage [plastic] the right way on land, and then the ocean becomes a big trash."

Surprisingly, Lecomte said he has yet to spot a plastic straw at sea. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have recently banned plastic straws, but Lecomte said the problem is much greater than any single item.

Surprisingly, Lecomte said he has yet to spot a plastic straw at sea. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have recently banned plastic straws, but Lecomte said the problem is much greater than any single item.

"There are alternatives" to all sorts of plastics, he said.

"There are alternatives" to all sorts of plastics, he said.

He's not just concerned about single-use plastics like bags, bottles, and straws, but also microfiber towels that disperse tiny particles into the water when they're washed.

"One of the properties of plastic is that it attracts pollutants," Lecomte said. "So every time you have a little bit of microplastic, the problem is the plastic itself, but also the pollutant that is attached to the plastic."

"One of the properties of plastic is that it attracts pollutants," Lecomte said. "So every time you have a little bit of microplastic, the problem is the plastic itself, but also the pollutant that is attached to the plastic."

Plastics at sea can pick up toxic chemicals and cart them around. These include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that researchers think may get picked up around oil slicks.

That's a problem for marine life. A 2018 study found that when corals come in contact with plastic, their risk of disease jumps from 4% to 89%.

That's a problem for marine life. A 2018 study found that when corals come in contact with plastic, their risk of disease jumps from 4% to 89%.

According to one 2017 study, an estimated 84% of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch carry dangerous levels of at least one chemical, and some of the creatures that live in and around the patch "may have plastic as a major component of their diets."

"There is a little ecosystem that is being created," Lecomte said.

"There is a little ecosystem that is being created," Lecomte said.

"If for example we find a crate, it will have the regular barnacles on the crate, and a few crabs on it, and then algae," Lecomte said. "And then under it you have usually a school off fish that lives right there and that follows the crate."

Critters can drift far from their usual habitats using these novel plastic homes.

Critters can drift far from their usual habitats using these novel plastic homes.

One 2012 study tracked how concentrations of the sea skater insects (halobates sericeus),who normally lay their eggs on seashells, seabird feathers, and tar lumps, have increased "significantly" in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch since the early 1970s.

"We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic," lead author Miriam Goldstein said when the study was released.

Her team hypothesized that this sea skater population boom in the patch might come "at the expense of prey such as zooplankton or fish eggs."

In addition to plastic, the patch is also full of 'ghost' nets that fishing boats leave behind. A 2018 study estimated that 46% of the garbage patch is "comprised of fishing nets."

In addition to plastic, the patch is also full of 'ghost' nets that fishing boats leave behind. A 2018 study estimated that 46% of the garbage patch is "comprised of fishing nets."

Source: Scientific Reports

"It's very rare to find one ghost net," Lecomte said — they're more often found in a tangled web with pieces of different colors and sizes, "like a bowl of noodles," he added.

"It's very rare to find one ghost net," Lecomte said — they're more often found in a tangled web with pieces of different colors and sizes, "like a bowl of noodles," he added.

Sea life is attracted to the nets.

Sea life is attracted to the nets.

A 1996 study tracked ghost nets in the Atlantic off the coast of the UK, and found that a single gillnet killed 226 fish in 70 days. The decomposing fish also attracted other crustaceans like crabs.

In fact, species of fish that are usually only found in reefs and coastal regions are showing up in open water, brought in by these nets and other plastic items, Lecomte said.

In fact, species of fish that are usually only found in reefs and coastal regions are showing up in open water, brought in by these nets and other plastic items, Lecomte said.

"It’s amazing what lives under it and in it," he said of the nets.

"It’s amazing what lives under it and in it," he said of the nets.

It's estimated that 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) of fishing nets are lost in the North Pacific every year.

It's estimated that 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) of fishing nets are lost in the North Pacific every year.

There's no shortage of bottle caps in the garbage patch either, so Lecomte tried out the viral #bottlecapchallenge at sea. "Instead of kicking the lid off of a single-use plastic bottle and creating more waste, we used a bottle we collected from the middle of the Pacific Ocean," he said.

There's no shortage of bottle caps in the garbage patch either, so Lecomte tried out the viral #bottlecapchallenge at sea. "Instead of kicking the lid off of a single-use plastic bottle and creating more waste, we used a bottle we collected from the middle of the Pacific Ocean," he said.

The bottle-cap challenge involves a trick in which you unscrew a bottle cap with nothing but your own foot, performing a 360-degree spin and kick to open the bottle hands-free.

"The challenge is a fun social media trend, but it's important to think about where these caps and bottles can end up," Lecomte added.

The crew sometimes catch fresh mahi-mahi to eat. They investigate the stomach contents of each fish before they consume it, and find plastic.

The crew sometimes catch fresh mahi-mahi to eat. They investigate the stomach contents of each fish before they consume it, and find plastic.

There's no clear evidence yet about what microplastics might do to our bodies after we eat fish or shrimp that have consumed them.

But plastics are known to hurt the growth, reproduction, and survival rates of tiny creatures like zooplankton that some fish rely on for food.

A few days ago, Lecomte met up with a team from The Ocean Cleanup, a project led by 24-year-old Boyan Slat that aims to develop new ways to clean up trash in the Pacific Garbage Patch. (The organization has had only limited success so far.)

A few days ago, Lecomte met up with a team from The Ocean Cleanup, a project led by 24-year-old Boyan Slat that aims to develop new ways to clean up trash in the Pacific Garbage Patch. (The organization has had only limited success so far.)

Slat's group dispatched a 2,000-foot-long iteration of its ocean cleanup tool to the garbage patch last year. Its design involved a U-shaped wall made out of plastic (yes, plastic) pipes, which was fitted with a 10-foot barrier underneath in order to corral trash without using nets.

But it didn't work very well: The device spilled a lot of what it collected back into the ocean.

"The second version is smaller and, because it can be modified offshore, they can test different modifications at a faster pace," Lecomte said on Instagram.

Lecomte expects to finish his swim soon and be back on dry land at the end of August. Then he'll return home to his wife and kids in Texas.

Lecomte expects to finish his swim soon and be back on dry land at the end of August. Then he'll return home to his wife and kids in Texas.

"It is the second year in a row that I am away for months and missing two summers with my family. It is hard on everybody," Lecomte said recently on Instagram, adding, "I can't wait to be back to my family life."

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