10 mins read | Creating Change

Everyday Activist: Ben Lecomte

plastic waste in sea beside yacht

Ben Lecomte is a long distance swimmer, adventurer and environmental campaigner. Ben grew up in the south of France where his love for the great outdoors began. In 1998 he  swam across the Atlantic Ocean from the US to France, and last year he attempted to become the first person to swim across the Pacific Ocean, traveling 1,753 miles before calling it quits due to bad weather. 

Ben is committed to using his passion to raise awareness about the health of our oceans and inspire change towards our relationship with plastic. In late 2019 he set off on a myth busting mission to uncover the truth about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and swam a gruelling 300NW in the vortex of plastic waste, double the size of Texas! Our Founder, John spoke to Ben and asked him about his life, adventurers and what’s yet to come…

Hi Ben, it’s great to talk you and thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to hear more about your work and life. I’m John, I run an ethical sunglasses brand called Pala and we love to interview people who are right and the margins of environmental change and to that end you fit perfectly into that brief so I’m really looking forward to asking you a few questions about your life and your work. 

Of course, thank you for the opportunity. 

So the first question I have is how would you describe yourself to a stranger?

I think it’s very difficult to sum up. We all have different interests and dimensions and we work more with some than others – I have so many interests but we are all shaped by our lives, our experiences and for me I discovered that the ocean is a big source of pleasure and I enjoy spending as much time as possible there. As a kid I knew that when I grew up, doing crazy long swims was a perfect way for me to live that passion! I am a person who wants to use my passion to bring attention to problems in the world that are affecting us. 

With this in mind, when I play with my kids on the beach, we find a lot of plastic. When I was growing up France, I never found plastic while building sand castles, so this really sparked my desire to do more for the younger generations and the future of our planet in my work. 

I entirely agree with all those points. I take my daughter to do a beach clean once a month where we live in Brighton and it’s just astonishing what we see left on the beach and the mindset of people – that they don’t feel responsible for the waste they’ve left behind. I take my daughter because I want her to feel an emotion about that, so when she’s older she’ll be talking about it and hopefully have the same attitude. I want this for all generations coming through so it will feel like a public disorder to leave any material on the beach. 

So where did your love for swimming and the great outdoors come from? 

When I was young my family spent a lot of time on vacation and my father taught me to swim when I was 4 or 5. I was very lucky to have parents that allowed us to try any activity or sport we wanted to. They gave us the opportunity to find ourselves and our identity. We spent a lot of our vacations outdoors, skiing, swimming and doing different activities. When it comes to swimming, I got inspired by a guy who rowed across the Atlantic and then afterwards the Pacific. I compared his speed to my swimming speed and they were fairly comparable, so I said if a person can row a boat and sustain himself for months at sea, how can a swimmer do the same? It sparked the adventurous side of swimming for me. 

Wow that’s pretty incredible to have that mindset! The world is my oyster so I’m going to go and swim the Atlantic and attempt the Pacific! In fact, the only reason you didn’t finish the Pacific was because the boat let you down, right? 

Yeah so unfortunately it was a bad season for typhoons and we had 2 hit us very early on in the expedition and we had to go back on land so we lost time to let the typhoon pass us. All the time we spent doing that pushed us to the end of the weather window that we had for good weather, so the delay meant we were hit by low pressure systems, so we had to contend with very difficult conditions which put the boat under a lot of stress, so we had to stop. I was still in very good shape mentally and physically but unfortunately sometimes things happen that are out of your control and you can’t be upset, you just have to accept it. 

ben lecomte swimming with albatrosses

Yeah that’s interesting. So do you still have the desire to swim the Pacific? Now that you’ve done the Vortex, that’s probably more important in that the whole purpose of it was to tell the story of what’s beneath our oceans so now it’s important to tell that story through as many channels as possible. 

Yes so when we had the issues with the boat I was disappointed, but I realised that the point of the expedition was to swim across the ocean to the great pacific garbage patch, so we decided to just focus on the garbage patch during the next expedition which is how the Vortex swim came to life.

So now that the Vortex has finished, what are you currently putting your energies into?

Unfortunately because of COVID, it’s very difficult to try to launch anything, because everything that I do depends on the support and funding of sponsors and there is so much uncertainty at the moment, which makes planning anything very difficult. 

So I am spending my time on finding other ways to still talk about the problem and also still working on documenting a series about plastic or microplastic that we have found. I have tonnes of footage from the Vortex swim that I haven’t yet developed into something that we can consume and share… 

That would be amazing! Its inspirational people like yourself and the environmental angle that you bring which really connects to people who watch those films and content. 

I would also like to go upstream to investigate further, and do the same type of sampling in places like the arctic to show people that you can still find the microplastics even in these remote areas. Ultimately I want to demonstrate that we are the problem and we need to solve it at the source.   

One thing I think our readers would love to know is: Can you name one thing you’ve seen whilst swimming that has stuck with you?

Yeah when we were talking about plastics earlier, I was trying to remember if we’d found any sunglasses frames, but we haven’t yet but maybe it’s because plastic frames don’t float? 

Yes well you could’ve found a pair of mine! I went paddle boarding recently and fell in and I lost my sunglasses, so I feel terrible! I can tell you they don’t float unfortunately. But I found another pair on my next beach clean and so I did take the equivalent back out of the sea again!

Ha, well we found so many different pieces of plastic – mainly items that you use on a daily basis. A lot of bottle leadsbecause they are made of very hard plastic. Food wrappers, toys, toothbrushes, razors. And I think the most memorable pieces was a toilet seat, which gave me the idea to do a series of pictures with items we can recognise while I am naked. I wanted to ask people the question – are they are more shocked by me being naked or by the toilet seat polluting the ocean? I want expand on this and do a series of similar images. 

I think that’s great. There’s also something connected about being naked in the ocean – it strikes me that that’s how we should be enjoying nature, without barriers… so that picture hit me on a couple of levels. 

Exactly, when you remove the wetsuit, you have all that sensation of your body being stimulated everywhere. I love the contrast.

So what do you think is the biggest challenge in spreading awareness about the ocean’s health?

I think there is a lot of misconception. One of my aims of the Vortex swim was to debunk the myth about the big island of plastic that is floating in the middle of the ocean, which is not right. So the problem is that people don’t realise exactly what it is, which I why it was important to me to go there and be able to talk about what exactly it is. We are bombarded by so much information that the most important things end up on the side and people are busy in their daily lives so don’t have time to engage fully with the problem.

I see that in my business as well. People are so overwhelmed, it seems impossible to focus just on one thing and in some people it’s fight or flight – you can either embrace it and take on the challenge, or pretend it’s not there. 

Exactly – there is no single component to solve the problem, it’s a melting pot of action that needs to be taken by everybody, all stakeholders, and I think that the problem makers, so the people who make money out of it like chemical and oil companies, need to be a big part of the solution.

Finally, can you tell me a memory from when you were younger of being in nature that was perhaps a trigger point for your adventures?

I think a big one from me was when my father was teaching me to swim in the Atlantic, off the south of France and there was a big wave coming at us that we didn’t see and it rolled us onto the beach. It made me realise that although the ocean is beautiful, it doesn’t take much to discover it’s power. We have to be mindful of respecting what it is. 

I’m not a big swimmer but I’ve tasked myself to go from a swim every day this week and I’m really beginning to look forward to it! There’s something about being at one with the sea. 

So that’s all the questions I had, thank you so much for your time Ben! I get a lot of inspiration from speaking to people like yourself, and I know that when we put this out on our platforms it has so much more value in spreading awareness for the impact we as humans have on the oceans. 

No problem I’m very happy to support what you’re doing at Pala and of course spread awareness for the health of our environment. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Keep up to date with Ben’s mind-blowing adventures by following him on Instagram or his website. He’s already swum the Atlantic and posed naked with a toilet seat, I’m sure we’re all eager to know what he’s got lined up for us next…

Photos copyright Ben Lecomte. Photo credit to the very talented Corbin Marshall (1,2 & 5) and Adam Hill (3 &4). 


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