Floating plastic cigarette lighters, feminine hygiene debris and old plastic grocery bags are among the flotsam swimmer Benoit Lecomte expects to encounter when he attempts to swim across the Pacific Ocean this fall to raise awareness about the ocean's garbage patches and their deadly affects on sea life.
Mr. Lecomte, who was born in France and now lives in Texas, was at the Vancouver Aquarium on Tuesday as part of Earth Day at the facility and to promote the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.
Mr. Lecomte was the first person to swim across the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard. This fall, he plans to swim across the Pacific Ocean from Tokyo to San Francisco on a five-month mission. The 8,850-kilometre odyssey will take him through the Pacific trash vortex, a collection of chemicals, plastics and other debris trapped by currents in the North Pacific.
Mr. Lecomte, 46, who has been an avid open-water swimmer from a young age, said his concern for the worsening state of the world's oceans prompted this undertaking.
"From when I used to swim 15, 20 years ago, I can tell there is a big difference. Too often, whenever I swim I have to encounter plastic, pieces of boxes floating around."
Dr. Peter Ross, director of the ocean pollution research program at the Vancouver Aquarium, said his colleagues on the west coast of Vancouver Island have photographed more than 200 sea lions with packing scraps and fishing nets tangled around their bodies.
Plastic bags are also a threat to B.C.'s endangered leatherback turtles, which confuse the bags for jelly fish.
Dr. Ross said even the small stuff does major damage.
He noted 19 of the 21 albatross species are threatened largely because they consume too many small bits of floating plastic.
The garbage patches in the Pacific where Mr. Lecomte will swim mostly consist of broken-down microparticles and microplastics, which are found in high concentrations in some soaps, toothpastes, facial scrubs and other cosmetics.
These microparticles are consumed by marine life at the bottom of the food chain and then reach up, but more study is needed to understand the full impact.
Microplastics are "possibly a very serious threat to the bottom of the food chain," Dr. Ross said.
Mr. Lecomte is currently fundraising for his swim. He will follow the same routine as his Atlantic swim, which he completed in 1998 – he will swim for eight hours a day, then eat and sleep on a boat that will accompany him throughout his journey.
"As a father it's my duty to [raise awareness] for my children," Mr. Lecomte said.
"I want to tell them that even though I couldn't do that much, I tried to do what I could do, and to use my passion to make a difference."