Meet Ben LecomteMeet Ben Lecomte

Story & Photos: icebreaker

May 9, 2019

In 1998, long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte was the first person to swim without a kick-board across the Atlantic Ocean. Since then his ocean challenges have taken on a higher purpose: raising awareness of plastic pollution. On the eve of his Vortex Swim, through the vortex of ocean plastics known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch, he shared his story with us.

I love the ocean. My father taught me how to swim in the Atlantic. From the get-go I’ve been very connected to that environment. When I was little I tried to be either on the water or in the water.

I like to challenge myself, push the limit and discover. My mother said recently, ‘I remember when you were little, you were always looking at new things to do and ways to be adventurous.’ If you don’t live on the edge, you take too much space. We all have dreams and aspirations. I don’t want to be in a situation a few years down the road where I think, I wish I had pursued that or I wish I had tried that. I would rather fail doing something that I am passionate about than not do it at all.

The last time I remember being on the beach and not seeing plastic pollution was when I was a kid of five or six years old. Throughout the many years that I’ve done open-water swimming I’ve noticed more and more plastic and debris around.

Now that I am a father, I have a responsibility to try to do everything that I can to limit the problem that we are going to pass on to our kids. If we don’t do something now, the problem will just escalate for the next generation.

I’ve realized that the best way to do something about plastic pollution is to use my passion for ocean swimming to bring attention to it. Use the expeditions as a platform for awareness and to collect data for scientific analysis.

Last year I swam 1500 nautical miles across the Pacific, starting in Japan and finishing in Hawaii. Throughout the whole expedition we collected plastic samples for scientific partners, and we observed big debris.

For the Vortex Swim I’ll be swimming through a dense area of ocean plastics known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s like a plastic smog across the water. I will swim at least 300 nautical miles through it, to represent the 300 million tons of plastic produced on land each year.

I’ll be pushing myself mentally and physically. It requires me to be in a certain mental state when I’m swimming for that long and in difficult conditions. Sometimes there will be big scary fish around me and it’s a natural reaction to have your heart rate go up.

Everybody eats a lot on the boat; it’s physically demanding being on the trip – a lot of effort and energy is put into collecting data. When I’m not swimming, I’ll be eating or sleeping.

I hate seeing plastic in the middle of the ocean. But at the same time I know I’m going to see some amazing marine life because when there’s a large amount of debris you find an entire ecosystem around it – you see amazing things that shouldn’t be there in the middle of the ocean. I’ll see fish up close and be able to interact with them; they are not afraid, they are very curious. Big fish like sharks, swordfish come around me because they are curious. Seabirds, like albatrosses, sit on the water beside me – we can just fist-bump.

Every time I get the chance to be in the water and away from land right smack in the middle of nowhere, it’s amazing. I really feel like I am like a tiger in a cage just waiting for somebody to open the cage and for me to run and be loose. There are some really difficult moments, some challenging moments but in the end, I get an experience that I don’t get anywhere else.

There’s a lack of understanding around plastic pollution. For some people, if it’s not in their backyard they don’t care too much about it. We want to show people what’s out there and bring them with us on this journey to experience what we see.

"There’s a lack of understanding around plastic pollution. For some people, if it's not in their backyard they don't care too much about it. We want to show people what’s out there and bring them with us on this journey to experience what we see."

Ben Lecomte

With just a mask and snorkel, and a wetsuit to keep him warm, Ben will swim up to eight hours a day.

Discoverer Vortex Swim

The Discoverer, home to Ben and the crew for three months during the Vortex Swim.

Paul Lecomte

Crew member Paul Lecomte getting ready to collect samples of water for analysis.

Microplastic debris

Part of the reason for the Vortex Swim is to find out more about the scale of microplastic pollution in the ocean.