Campaigner to brave sharks and debris on Pacific swim for the environment | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 24.11.2015
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Campaigner to brave sharks and debris on Pacific swim for the environment

A Frenchman who said "never again" after swimming across the Atlantic is taking to the waves once more - this time, to cross the Pacific. His goal is to raise awareness about environmental threats to the oceans.

Environmentalist Benoit Lecomte is counting down the days until he faces sharks, rough waters and exhaustion on his long-awaited 5,500-mile (8,850-kilometer) swim from Japan to the USA.

The 48-year-old architect, along with the six-person crew of ship the Rolano, aim to set off at the beginning of January. Lecomte would swim eight hours a day from Tokyo to San Francisco for six months.

Lecomte, who hopes to become the first person to cross the Pacific without a flotation device, wants the project to be more than just a stunt.

The aim is to grab people's attention on growing environmental and sustainability issues and to rethink humanity's impact on the ocean, while video streaming and social media will let the audience follow Lecomte and interact with him and his team.

Lecomte, born in France but now a naturalized American living in Texas, is no stranger to swimming vast waters, having already swum the Atlantic in 1998 to raise money and awareness for cancer research as a tribute to his father.

He decided to return to the water after becoming worried about what the future of the planet would hold for his two children.

Benoit Lecomte's boat will detect sharks using a sonar.

Benoit Lecomte's boat will detect sharks using a sonar

Lecomte told DW: "I don't want a scenario where I'm a grandfather with my grandchild on my lap, telling him that we used to have sharks, tuna - but we don't have them any more, we just have pictures of them."

"I know that I'm not going to change everything but I want to use my passion to make a little difference," Lecomte said. "I hope I can raise awareness with a crazy swim."

Fending off sharks - to protect them

Lecomte will have to contend with an array of hazards on his arduous journey, ranging from sharks and other predators to marine debris.

He said that the boat is equipped with a sonar system to detect sharks, meaning Lecomte will need to stay near the ship so his team can warn him if they notice anything suspicious. But this creates a new risk: that strong waves could batter him against the vessel.

The vessel will also have an electrode to create an electromagnetic field to ward off sharks. But far from wishing to avoid sharks, Lecomte is actively hoping to see some on his swim in order to highlight the creatures' plight.

"There are only 10 percent of the world's big fish currently left on the planet," he told DW. "I know that from swimming in the open waters, there's a lot of negative impact on the oceans, the effect of plastics on sea life."

Benoit Lecomte will cover 5,500-mile (8,850 kilometers) by swimming eight hours a day for six months

Benoit Lecomte will cover 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) by swimming eight hours a day from Tokyo to San Francisco

The campaigner, who has been training for more than three years for his latest swim, admitted that although is speed and strength may have waned since his Atlantic crossing, his endurance has grown.

"I think the biggest challenge will be the mind - keeping on doing something that's difficult, and doing it in a hostile environment and being isolated, finding the motivation day in, day out," said Lecomte, whose journey will be aided by the Pacific Kuroshio current.

Lecomte will be eating and drinking on the go, consuming a bottle of liquid or soup every 20 to 30 minutes while swimming on his back to avoid having to stop.

He will sleep on the Rolano every night, which will bring him back every morning to the exact GPS location where he stopped swimming the day before to resume his journey.

Swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Lecomte's project will carry out marine research.

Lecomte's project will carry out marine research

The project, dubbed The Longest Swim, will also provide a platform for scientific ocean research.

Scientists from several United States institutions will collect data, including on plankton species and radiation levels, to contribute to oceanic and medical research.

The very slow speed at which Lecomte and the Rolano will be crossing the Pacific creates optimum conditions for collecting samples and making observations.

In the last months of the journey, Lecomte will swim across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a key area for research as it is the biggest concentration of microplastic in the open ocean.

The crew will collect daily data on the amount and type of marine plastic, on microscopic life forms living in the water and on the plastic, and on ocean acidity.

The team will also monitor what is happening to radioactive contaminants, released into the ocean when a tsunami flooded Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in 2011, via a special wearable cesium collector that will be fixed onto Lecomte's leg.

And once Lecomte make it across the Pacific, he'll continue his environmental campaigning, of course.

"That's very important for the future life of my children and grandchildren," he said.

mh/sad (AFP)

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