Swimming Through the Garbage Patch

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On August 25, 1875, a 27-year-old steamship captain named Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel unassisted. It took him a little under 22 hours to swim from Dover to Calais, and the journey made him internationally famous. Today his feat seems so… well, 1875. Why cross the English Channel when there are so many more impressive bodies of water to tackle?

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Last week, Ben Lecompte set off across the Pacific Ocean. He entered the water off the coast of Japan at 8:00 in the morning on a Tuesday and expects to arrive in San Francisco in six or eight months. Unlike the mere 39 miles Webb covered nearly a century and a half ago, the 51-year-old Lecompte will swim about 5,500 miles; his goal is to swim for eight hours each day.

One purpose of the trip, he says, is to draw attention to the plastic debris in our oceans. He may have to swim through portions of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, after all (it’s usually a bit south of his route, midway between Hawaii and California, but it’s three times the size of Texas and moves around; besides, there will be plenty of other debris along the way). He is accompanied by several boats—the project is funded or sponsored in part by NASA, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Discovery Channel, which is filming it—and scientists aboard the boats will collect water samples throughout the journey. They’ll be studying the effects of plastic on the environment, the residual effects from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and migration patterns of sea mammals. The boats will also help ward off sharks.

Lecompte is well prepared for the trip; he’s been planning and training for several years. In 1998, he swam the Atlantic Ocean—from Hyannis, MA, to Quiberon, Brittany, in his native France (he now lives in Texas)—covering 3,700 miles in 73 days. The most serious problems he anticipates on his current swim are jellyfish and boredom. “To complete the swim is just one goal,” he says in this article. “The bigger goal is to engage people into understanding that the ocean is in peril.”
You can read more about his trip here and here. SW_bug_web

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