After 25 years living and working in Los Angeles, Kiwi actor and stuntman Phil Somerville has returned home with his young family – but he didn't make the 10,500-kilometre trip the conventional way!
Rather than hop on a 13-hour flight, the experienced sailor and keen environmentalist skippered his 54-foot yacht Today from California to Auckland, testing the ocean for plastic pollution along the way.
Joining Phil on board was a marine biologist, a cameraman, and representatives from charity Love the Sea and marine research centre Algalita South Pacific. He also had the support of other sailors, including his good friend and fellow Kiwi actor Martin Henderson.
In the six months since they set off from Marina del Rey in May, Phil and his crew have visited nine island nations, teaching the locals about preserving the environment and helping with beach clean-ups.
"I've always been an ocean advocate," the 48-year-old tells. "I grew up on the ocean, sailing with my dad in New Zealand. It really means a lot to me."
Using a mantra trawl – a sophisticated, cone-shaped net towed behind a boat – the team discovered plastic debris in more than 80% of samples they took from the sea.
"I honestly did not expect the Pacific to be that full of plastic," says the shocked seafarer.
"It doesn't hit home until you really see it for yourself, constantly finding plastic particles and microplastics.
"The fact we can't see most of it with the naked eye just adds to the problem because it's out of sight, out of mind. This isn't what I want for my boys and the next generation of Kiwis."
After appearing in blockbuster movies Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Iron Man 3, Zero Dark Thirty and The Island, the father-of-two has left Hollywood behind for now.
He wants to focus on saving the planet instead.
"I had a good acting run while I was in the States, scoring parts in everything from commercials to blockbuster movies – one of which I haven't seen yet!"
Phil tells, referring to the latest Mission: Impossible sequel, in which he plays a villainous helicopter pilot leading a breathtaking chopper chase near Queenstown.
"It was a perfect backdrop and a stunning location for what is certainly the biggest action scene in the film. The movie was released in June, but I was on my boat sailing home, so I am yet to see it –but I hear it's very good!"
Putting his money where his mouth is, Phil sold his LA home to found his Eat Less Plastic project. He estimates the voyage to Auckland cost at least $120,000 of his own money and he's grateful to all those who donated toward the further $40,000 needed.
"Without this incredible support, making the trip happen would have been very difficult," explains the environmentalist, who intends to continue his worldwide crusade from Aotearoa.
Phil's US-born wife Jill, 42, has a master's degree in physical therapy and is right behind her husband's environmental causes.
Though the couple decided against bringing their boys – Stryder, eight, and Reef, six – back home on the boat, she supported the trip by being his land-based organiser and logistics manager.
While Phil continues his conservation campaign, Jill intends to open her own osteopathic physical therapy business on the North Shore.
The couple dream of living in a more eco-friendly way, with Phil investing in another environmentally conscious enterprise, Wildernests, which builds off-the-grid houses.
"People can create their own water out of the atmosphere – they don't need septic tanks," Phil says.
"You can basically put a house on a hill anywhere, and you will survive and live comfortably in that house. I've always wanted to live off the grid – my long-term dream is to buy a little section on Waiheke or in Waikino, without power or water hooked up to it."
But in the short term, cleaning up our oceans is Phil's number-one priority.
Describing plastic as the most deadly threat to marine life, he says, "Eat Less Plastic is a long-term campaign. It's about being leaders in green initiatives, such as recycling, and educating kids about keeping our planet clean.
"Making people aware is one thing, but having a plan to do something about it is another. We have to make it fun for kids especially or they won't listen.
"What can they do at home? How can they help? Why is it important everyone pitches in? Those are the sorts of questions we need to get young people asking."