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One hundred days between the sky, litter and the sea

Atualizado: 24 de jul. de 2020

English edit by Carla Elliff

Illustration by Caia Colla

I was searching for long distance swimmers when I found out about Ben Lecomte. Ben is an endurance athlete, which means he practices aerobic sports of either moderate or low intensity over a long period of time, such as marathons. In 1998, he crossed the North Atlantic in a campaign supporting the fight against cancer. To my surprise, after a lot of planning, Ben was now crossing the Pacific Ocean. However, this time, he was campaigning to raise awareness on the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and highlighting the importance of marine conservation. The project already relied on partnerships with research groups from important universities in the field of oceanography, such as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Hawaii (UH). Also, the initiative was being filmed and already has 14 episodes ready. More content is being produced so that, in the end, this whole venture can become a documentary. The organizers also negotiated support from brands that sell sustainable products, such as icebreaker, which produces clothing with plant-based fibers.

Credits: Hannah Altschwager, The Vortex Swim (C).

At the time I came to know of this project, the team was in Hawaii due to some problems in their vessel and they would move on to California in a few weeks. The new route through the North Pacific was plotted out so that they would cross the largest garbage patch in the world, with an estimated 1.6 million km². Ben would cross this stretch swimming in the company of a team of scientists and activists responsible for surveying and sampling. Surprisingly, there were two spots open for scientists on board this new stage. The crew would consist of just 10 people, of which four were in Ben’s personal team. The other six spots rotated among professionals working with science, education, and media production.

Credits: Hannah Altschwager, The Vortex Swim (C).

At the time I was just about to finish my master’s degree and I saw this vacancy for a scientist as a unique opportunity for an experience outside academia representing a cause with environmental and social purposes. I believe that the only way to effectively change the mentality and behaviors of mankind is through education. There is no point in “prohibiting” littering or “forcing” people to recycle and use sustainable products. People must understand why these issues are relevant so that they contribute towards a positive change.

I submitted my intention letter and my CV for this opportunity. Although I have only been in academia for a relatively short length of time, I believed that my principles and my experiences at the University of São Paulo (USP) and abroad in other projects would be well received. Moreover, I am a triathlete myself, with experience in ironman events (3.8 km swimming, 180 km cycling and 42 km running) and supporting other ultra-distance athletes. I believed these extracurricular activities could be a way to stand out among other applications. In the world of sports and science we are constantly subjected to failures, maybe more so than in other professions. Living both realities has made me develop my focus and determination to reach my objectives and to see each one as part of my purpose in life. I raised all these points in my intention letter, and I wrote each phrase with my mind, body and soul. I believed that Ben’s cause could be my own as well.

Credits: Hannah Altschwager, The Vortex Swim (C).

The days passed by and, when I least expected it, I was in the final phase of selection for an interview. I was tested and assessed from different perspectives in the conversations I had with Ben and the crew. In addition to questions about my academic background, they tested me psychologically through a series of questions. We would be at sea for about 100 days, confined in the space of a sailboat, with no freshwater for bathing and with almost no communication with the outside world. I was warned that it was very likely that I would be the only woman aboard in a crew of nine men. Fortunately, none of these issues intimidated me and I was selected.

The expedition route was planned by Professor Nikolai Maximenko, a physical oceanographer at UH, for his project on litter/plastic monitoring using satellites. We will cross as many garbage patches as possible during the expedition. We will make visual observations and collect different sizes of plastic particles using a neuston net. In addition to the particles, we will collect the organisms that grow and thrive on different types of plastic, contributing to the dissemination of species in the subtropical gyre of the North Pacific.

Microplastics and neuston net. Credits: Hannah Altschwager, The Vortex Swim (C).

The partner projects seek to better understand the connectivity of bioinvasion of species that inhabit garbage patches. I will be responsible for coordinating and recording sampling onboard. Moreover, I will swim beside Ben whenever possible. He will swim for about 8 hours/day, distributed over 2 periods of 4 hours each. During the interviews he told me I was the only applicant he interviewed who offered to accompany him in the water…

I will arrive in Hawaii over the next few days and we will set sail by the end of May. I can hardly wait to meet the whole crew in person! I was also happy to find out that the other scientist selected was a woman as well, Juliette (an American marine biologist). I am extremely happy and grateful for representing, firstly, women in science and also Brazil in a project with such a noble and current cause.

We are living difficult times in Brazilian science, which are in some ways even more challenging for women. However, I believe that it is during times of trouble that we should dare to create our own opportunities. In this expedition, science and sports were somehow combined in the search for my own purpose, directly reflecting my lifestyle. I hope other girls and scientists can be adventurous and risk more in search of their dreams in a vast ocean, filled with mystery and opportunities



Garbage patch: regions in the ocean that favor the concentration of litter at the sea surface due to ocean gyres, which are large oceanic current systems.

Neuston: aquatic organisms that live at the sea surface, occupying the first 10 cm of the water column. Neuston nets are used to capture these organisms.


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