MARINE PLASTICS

The World Record Holding Swimmer Swims the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

There is a superman who once swam across the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard. He is French native Mr. Ben Lecomte. He completed this feat in 1998 and became a world record holder. Now, he is profoundly troubled by something else: The plastic debris floating in the ocean.

He has been enthusiastically swimming in the sea since he was 15 years old. He pointed out that the current conditions of the sea are definitely different from those of 20 years ago (The Globe and Mail2014). Every time he swims, he runs across floating plastic debris all over the place.

It is a big surprise that he is planning a campaign to swim across the Pacific Ocean to raise awareness of marine debris. According to his plan, he is going to swim from Tokyo to San Francisco in 5-6 months this year. His campaign is named “The longest swim”.

The distance between Tokyo and San Francisco is 8,850 km. It would be a terribly long journey for anyone, and a long swim for him. His swimming route lies exactly inside the North Pacific Ocean Current; this includes the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The North Pacific Gyre is a huge loop that whirls clockwise in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris gathers inside this gyre and the accumulated waste creates a huge garbage patch.

There are two large waste patches in the North Pacific Ocean. One is the GPGP (Eastern Garbage Patch), which lies off the west coast of the U.S., and the other is the Western Garbage Patch, which lies off southern Japan.

Plastic waste that is thrown away on the west coast of the U.S. heads westward, riding on the North Pacific Gyre, and then continues north, flowing on the Japan Current. It takes about two years for the drifting plastic debris to finally arrive at the Western Garbage Patch, which is to the south of Japan.

On the other hand, it takes only one year for marine debris that is cast away in China, Japan and Southeast Asia to reach the Eastern Garbage Patch, which is off the west coast of the U.S. The reason is that the North Pacific Ocean Subarctic Circulation helps the eastward current flow faster.

Image credit: Plastic Draft (CC BY-NC-SA)

This simulation shows that waste from Japan, China and Southeast Asia is carried to the GPGP (Eastern Garbage Patch), which lies offshore near San Francisco, and concentrates there.

The reason why the amount of waste at the GPGP is increasing at a horrific rate is that the plastic waste coming into ocean from Asia, especially from China and Southeast Asia, now represents a significant amount.

There is no doubt that Mr. Lecomte will meet a huge amount of waste while he is swimming for this campaign. He will be swimming in a soup of plastic waste instead of in the ocean in some places.

Mr Lecomte will frequently come across microplastics during his crossing of the ocean. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in size. Some of these used to be part of big pieces of plastic and have decayed and crumbled over the years. Some of them are microbeads, which are tiny from the onset.

Microplastics can contain toxic chemical substances that were added when they were produced. They may also hold contaminated substances that they have absorbed while they were floating in the sea.

Microplastics are eaten by small animals such as zooplankton, which are at the bottom of the food chain, and then these small animals are eaten by larger animals. Thus, microplastics keep being carried to the top of the food chain. However, research into the impact these have on the ecosystem has only just begun.

He has said that, just like when he swam across the Atlantic Ocean in 1988, he will probably swim more than 8 hours per day and have his meals and sleep on the support boat (The Globe and Mail2014).

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