Scientists to Tag Along on Trans-Pacific Swim

Jul 27, 2015

In 1998, Ben LeComte swam some 3,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, eight hours at a time. It took him seventy three days in total. Now, he's taking on an even bigger challenge - The Longest Swim - a 180-day, 5,500 mile swim across the Pacific Ocean, from Tokyo to San Francisco. His goal is to boost our understanding and awareness of ocean health issues.

LeComte swims eight hours per day, using fins and a snorkel but no flotation devices, following a line trailing behind his support boat. At the end of the day, his team records his GPS location and he climbs aboard the boat for sixteen hours of eating and sleeping. The next morning, they return to the same location, and he hops in the water to do it all over again.

During his Pacific crossing, there will be some additional activity on-board the boat: science. With less than two months before his scheduled departure, LeComte is lining up an impressive array of science partners who will be using his swim as a platform for their own research on the fate of radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, plastic pollution, and the microbes that inhabit the human gut. While he swims, the crew aboard his support boat will be filtering water and towing nets to collect tiny pieces of floating plastic.

Crossing the Atlantic, LeComte encountered rough weather, sharks, and jellyfish. But when asked what the biggest challenges of the swim were, he rattles off things like stomach bugs, and irritation from his wetsuit. There's also the fact that he has to consume roughly 8,000 calories per day (his hunger wakes him up in the middle of the night) and keep his mind occupied for eight hours of monotonous swimming each day. But those, he says, are things he can do something about. Sharks, jellyfish, and weather fall into another category: take precautions (he wears a full-body wetsuit to minimize sting-able area and uses a device that emits a shark-repelling magnetic field around him), then don't worry about things you can't control.

For LeComte's science collaborators, the challenges are different, and primarily boil down to one thing: funding. Like the swim itself, all of the research is being crowd-funded. For plastics researcher Linda Amaral Zettler, an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, that's new - and somewhat daunting - territory. But Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing his research on the oceanic aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and says he sees this as just one more extension of that. Both say this is an exciting and unique opportunity for both research and public education, well-worth the effort involved.