This 51-Year-Old Is Swimming Across the Pacific

Man in wetsuit swims in the Pacific Ocean
Day 63: Benôit 'Ben' Lecomte is swimming across the Pacific to draw attention to plastic and other pollution in the ocean. 

Despite conditions that included heavy winds, large swells, and even jellyfish that kept stinging his nose, Benôit "Ben" Lecomte this past weekend crossed the 1,000 nautical mile mark of his historic swim across the Pacific.

Estimated to last six to eight months and cover more than 5,500 miles, Ben's attempt was temporarily sidelined in July by a series of dangerous typhoons that crossed his intended path. Undeterred, he resumed his epic swim in early August and has steadily been making progress at a rate of 20 to 30 nautical miles per day toward San Francisco.

For Ben, who in 1998 swam across the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard, this is less about making history and more about drawing attention to a world in crisis.

"The way we live on land, our daily activities and behavior have a direct negative impact on the ocean and put it in peril," he said. "More than ever I am determined to use this amazing expedition as a platform to get attention to this issue and invite the audience to think about how we can all make some changes in our daily routine to become a better steward of the ocean and protect it as we cannot live without it."

"Most of the time, I feel like a swim in circles," Ben wrote on Facebook. "Today, I finally found a sign to point me in the right direction."

Ben Lecomte gripping the direction marker at the 1,000 nautical mile mark.
Lecomte grips the direction marker at the 1,000 nautical-mile mark.

The 1,000 nautical mile mark is an incredible milestone in a journey that began on June 5 off Choshi, Japan. In celebration, his support crew of nine dropped a pole with arrows pointing to Japan (1,000 nautical miles), the International Space Station (220 nm), the U.S. (3,600 nm), and the ocean floor (2 nm).

A team effort

Lecomte crew sits on back of swim support ship for group photo
Lecomte (center, standing) with his support crew aboard the Discoverer.

To pull off the swim, Ben relies on a team of people aboard a wind- and solar-powered support vessel called the Discoverer to keep him on course, attend to his nutrition and medical needs, and communicate with the outside world. For the eight hours or so he's in the water each day, a support dingy operated by two crew members glides alongside him, monitoring his progress and giving him a reference point to stay on track. At night, the Discoverer marks his GPS location and then brings him back to swim again at that exact spot.

In conjunction with science and technology giant Seeker, Ben and his crew have been publishing engaging online journal and video updates about the trek and its many complex hurdles.

For instance, there are a number of reasons why Ben's meticulously planned route cannot simply follow a straight line across the Pacific.

An Opportunity for Science

Because "The Swim" will unfold over a long period of time, the expedition also has partnered with over 27 science institutions to collect more than 1,000 water samples throughout the journey. While Ben is in the water, the crew aboard the Discoverer collects and stores samples of plastic pollution found along the route, creating what they hope will be "the most extensive plastic Trans-Pacific dataset to date." The results so far, particularly concerning near-invisible microplastics (a piece of plastic 5 millimeters or less in size), have been less than encouraging.

"We have found microplastic each time we towed the net, starting near the Japanese coasts," the team writes. "Currents and winds create areas in the ocean that gather microplastic where its density is the highest. But microplastic is found everywhere and it is referred to as plastic smog; it is a foreign element to the ocean and a danger to sea life."

water sample showing microplastics
An example of the microplastics being collected and recorded throughout the journey.

Naturally, the feat is also an opportunity to study the physical effects of swimming across an entire ocean.

"As his body will be pushed to the limits, The Swim is an exciting test case for several biomedical studies," they add. "By monitoring Ben's heart activity, thermoregulation, microbiome, and more, researchers will learn more about the effect of prolonged strenuous activity and low gravity environment on the human body."