Conservationist, photographer, deep sea diver and Blancpain friend of the brand Laurent Ballesta gives Yacht Style the low down on what makes him (and his watch), the best in their fields.
Depth of Field: Laurent Ballesta talks to Yacht Style about what makes him and his Blancpain X Fathoms tick
It appears from your photographs that you operate with little regard for your own safety. What’s the biggest risk you have taken in pursuit of the perfect shot?
Appearances are deceptive, since risk management is in fact the main priority! For example, during the most recent Gombessa Expedition in Fakarava, which ended this summer, it might be that the images give the impression that we take undue risks amidst the sharks, but one must bear in mind that we have been doing these dives for four years. In the beginning, we kept our distance from the animals and didn’t dare get close to the pack, especially when they got going. Little by little we understood that we were simple obstacles rather than targets. We were jostled but never attacked. The only condition is to keep one’s cool and leave the sharks to get excited without getting excited oneself. This is how I was able to take pictures as close as possible to scenes of hunting involving the fastest, most violent behavior of my entire career as a diver. So I do not have the feeling that I took unnecessary risks and one must remember that we clocked up more than 2,000 diving hours with these sharks. Had there really been any major risk during these 2,000 hours, sooner or later we would have been bitten…
In the Gombessa book, there’s a lot of photography that showcases the humor and camaraderie surrounding your conservation work. How important is showing off this side of your work?
My key values during my expeditions are an authentic approach, relevant aims, legitimacy of activities conducted, and the honesty of the story that we will tell. It goes without saying that I am aware of wanting people to dream, but I want their dream to be based on the reality we experience! This is why we often see these moments of fellowship, it is the reflection of a reality: the Gombessa team is a group of people that I have pulled together through encounters, people who have become friends and with whom we experience loads of adventures, far more than the few ones we show in a film.
I don’t want us to be taken for insensitive professionals, because we are first and foremost people with a passion who have had the opportunity of transforming this passion into a profession. We are attempting to do things “in a serious manner but without taking ourselves seriously” so we might as well make that clear, and this human approach assists in transmitting conservation messages. That’s what I believe, at any rate.
Speaking of which, how are the efforts to conserve the coelacanth going?
The tracker that we put on the coelacanth’s back eventually reappeared to the surface after nine months on its back as planned. We learned a lot from it, including the fact that the coelacanth tends to be sedentary and didn’t travel at any time during this period. That’s a powerful argument for reinforcing the rules for the preservation of the protected area off the coast of Sodwana, because these coelacanths appear to live here and nowhere else!
What’s your opinion on correcting people from a scientific perspective? For example, when people equate the coelacanth with dinosaurs, do you correct them?
In the beginning I liked the idea of calling the coelacanth the “dinosaur fish”. I was well aware that it was biologically incorrect. The coelacanth is an osseous or bony fish, not a dinosaur nor even a reptile but that didn’t bother me as long as helped remembering it. By the same token, I liked calling it “the oldest fish in the world” which is also incorrect. The coelacanths I encountered were modern coelacanths of our era and it is likely that the largest specimens I saw were around my age or even younger. But once again none of these misnomers bothered me until I came across the disingenuousness and bald-faced lies disseminated by certain proponents of the creationist ideology that is so powerful in many countries, starting with the United States. Creationism is even taught in many schools. I consider their arguments to be scientifically incorrect and even fraudulent. Moreover, one should never forget that behind several creationist stances lies the darkest side of conservatism: questioning evolution and advocating the stasis of living beings can serve as the first step in dissuading man miserable from birth from liberating himself and hoping for some kind of social advancement… Ever since I grasped the secret motivations driving some of these creationists, I have taken it seriously. I reaffirm that we have animal origins and that the first terrestrial tetrapods came from fish that left the water 370 million years ago. The coelacanth of today is just a modern fish that belongs to this ancient group of which some evolved into these terrestrial subspecies. Observing and researching the coelacanth of today is a means of understanding who these famous ancestors were who successfully conquered land. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Could you please tell us about your latest Gombessa Project challenge?
After the coelacanth quest came the annual gathering of groupers in Polynesia involving the challenge of a 24-hour dive amongst them. Then there was Gombessa 3, involving the discovery of polar ecosystems in Antarctica, with the deepest dives ever attempted in polar waters and under the ice floe. We have just returned from Gombessa 4, where we went to research the nocturnal hunting habits of sharks in the Fakarava Atoll. Gombessa 5 will take place next year in 2018 but that’s still a bit confidential!
And now a little bit about watches… You’ve stated your preference for a mechanical depth gauge rather than digital one. Why is that so?
I dive with a closed circuit rebreather involving an electronic analysis of the breathing mix which has to be connected to a wrist computer which manages all the parameters of the machine and the dive. In my work, for diving, my mechanical watch is my backup, my rescue, in the event of all the electronics that are key to life would somehow end up failing, enabling me to exit the water safely. With the Blancpain X Fathoms, I have the time and depth, the two elements essential to achieving one’s decompression in the event of an electronic failure. In addition, the analog depth gauge gives me an idea of my speed when ascending by watching the speed of the watch pointer, which an electronic depth gauge doesn’t do. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate that little extra something that this one-of-a-kind mechanical watch offers.
You obviously care a great deal about how the information you present is used. How does the partnership with Blancpain help you get the word out in a positive manner?
It’s a long-term partnership. The expeditions that they enable me to achieve each year are ambitious. There is a scientific mystery to solve, diving challenges to take up, and the hope of unprecedented animal images, although there’s no guarantee of that! But optimism and innovation are values that we share, and they play the game and support me despite the uncertainties. That’s part of the adventure. My approach has at least one unshakable guarantee: namely authenticity, a value that is also important to Blancpain. Our relationship is both professional and based on friendship, because Blancpain is a human-size company and the people with whom I deal are the actual directors. There is a very strong sense of family, we see each other on various occasions, we share commun memories, and it goes without saying that they support me financially. In addition to this, they also help me promote my work abroad thanks to the events that they organize in different big cities across the world.
What impresses you with regard to the story of the Fifty Fathoms watches?
So many pioneers were part of the history of the Fifty Fathoms… starting with the first military divers of all time who wore the very first Fifty Fathoms. Finding myself in the forefront of this adventure today makes me both very proud as well as placing a great degree of responsibility on me: I never lose sight of this all-pervasive, sometimes obsessive idea of doing my utmost to be worthy of this saga.
What is your relationship with the time?
Time under water is counted in minutes and yet I accumulate a lifetime of memories. Time under water expands with the depth and this is no simple poetic expression, it is a physiological reality: four minutes at 120 m is equivalent to one hour of decompression at 6 m during the ascent! Time on the bottom comes at a premium, but being able to explore the twilight zone that only one percent of sunlight reaches is a rare privilege, a veritable treasure. Those minutes are diamonds and they should only be measured with an instrument worthy of this time that is more precious than gold.
What’s the deepest dive you’ve ever made and what watch were you wearing at the time?
My greatest depth reached was 201 m. At the time, I didn’t have a mechanical watch, a main computer and a second backup, which was an undeniable lack of etiquette !
Let’s discuss climate change for a bit. What signs have you personally experienced of the changes facing the planet, and the dangers facing us as a species?
When you visit a new ecosystem for the first time, it is always presumptuous to make pronouncements on changes, precisely because you haven’t had a chance to make comparisons. So I can only talk about the places I have been going to for a long time, or even since childhood in the south of France in the French Mediterranean. I must admit that in my region I have seen species adapted to warm conditions – such as gecko, the blue shark and the barracuda – begin to appear, while others adapted to cold conditions like the basking shark have become scarcer. Over the years I have also noticed fresh water becoming scarcer and rivers changing color from translucent blue to opaque green. It is so obvious and also so easy to see – one doesn’t need to be a specialist, it just requires paying a little attention to the wild surrounding us. I therefore simply cannot understand the dogmatic skepticism of climate change skeptics. The change is undeniable.