LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
Laurent Ballesta leads the way to understanding our planet's last unchartered territories
￼Nobody believed what Laurent Ballesta saw underwater, so he bought a camera to prove it. Thirty years ago, diving off Montpellier in the south of France, he’d get so excited about seeing the smallest sea creature that when it came to tell of the more spectacular sights, his audience would be nonplussed or worse, non-believers. “My own mother, father and brother would say, ‘Oh yes, of course, yes,’ but I could see in their eyes that they didn’t think I was telling the truth,” he says. So he took a plunge of a different, life-changing sort.
“I was 16 years old and explained to my father that I needed a camera, for my studies to be a marine biologist and after that for my job. Asking him for the money to buy a Nikonos V [underwater camera] was like presenting to a sponsor today: it was a big, big deal. The €1,500 I needed seemed like an impossible amount of money back then. But he listened, and told me he would buy it for me, but the money would be coming out of my inheritance, to be fair to my brother. Imagine the responsibility I felt when he said that.”
It was no burden to him. Laurent would go on to become a scientist, conservationist and world-leading underwater photographer, always searching for the new and remarkable in unexplored territories. “My expeditions are all different,” he says, “but they do have three things in common. There is always a scientific goal, a technical diving challenge to overcome and the promise of new wildlife photography. Not to take new photos of something we’ve seen, but to take photos of something new. All three of these have to be on every mission.”
His last five major missions, known as the Gombessa Expeditions, have taken Laurent to the edge of human experience, from where he has brought back valuable data and remarkable pictures. On the most recent, Gombessa V in July 2019, he and three colleagues spent a month deep below the surface of the Mediterranean between Marseille and Monaco in a diving bell about the size of a small bathroom.
The four men spent up to eight hours a day, in two stints of about 3-4 hours each, for 28 days in row, at depths of up to 145m. Ascending from so deep usually takes about seven hours, but Laurent devised a revolutionary system that meant the men didn’t need to decompress, and ascents in the still-pressurised diving bell took about three minutes. On the surface, the bell was connected to two more pressurised chambers, a kitchen and sleeping quarters, on a barge. He also devised a method to allow dives from the bell without the usual umbilical cord. Together, these two innovations meant more freedom and dive time than ever on a deep mission of this kind – and more time for photos.
“On this, and all my expeditions,” Laurent says, “the difficult thing is not taking the photo, it’s reaching the place to shoot. Every time it’s different. In Antarctica, of course, it’s painfully cold to make those dives, but once you can cope, getting a shot of an unbelievable underwater landscape is easy. Shooting sharks in French Polynesia, where they hunt only at night and move so fast, we had to find new lighting techniques. We spent about 3,000 hours in total over five years making the same dive over and over, sometimes twice or three times a night.”
Routine can be the price to pay for adventure, but the rewards can be spectacular. Shooting the sharks’ feeding frenzy in 2017 was the fourth Gombessa expedition and led to a book and a National Geographic documentary, 700 Sharks Into the Dark. Gombessa I, in 2013, encountered the coelacanth, the rare ‘living fossil’ fish off South Africa. In 2014, the mating of thousands of grouper fish in French Polynesia, which only happens for about half an hour annually, was captured on Gombessa II. He returned there for Gombessa IV, to focus on the sharks he and his team saw circling the groupers.
Each time, the expeditions are more ambitious, requiring more planning and more funds, which means more time pitching for grants and courting potential sponsors. Gombessa V had 12 financial partners. This is long, hard work, which can take years. “Finding the money, getting permissions, convincing everyone to work together – this is my full-time job,” says Laurent. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I really have to motivate myself. But then I remember that I am going to be in a place where, with one click of my camera, I will find something new – new behaviour or even a new species. And it’s that which gives me the strength to continue.”
Last July, in the cramped diving bell in the Mediterranean Sea, he needed all his resolve to cope with the demands of the dive. The air in the submersible was a mix of 97 per cent helium and three per cent oxygen, which meant it got much hotter than regular air. “At one point,” he says, “we all had this feeling we were going to die. We were all sweating as we never had before, and we had to lie down naked to cope. So when we went out into the water, it felt colder than Antarctica.” (He would know: Gombessa III, in 2015, explored waters never dived on the frozen continent.)
On the subject of future expeditions, Laurent’s aim is high. “They found a liquid ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, under an ice field,” he says, with a grin. “So maybe, one day, that will be Gombessa XX. Why not?”
The first underwater camera I bought was a Nikonos V and I haven’t stopped using Nikon since. That camera was so good. Years later, I showed Nikon France my work and asked for their support, which I am lucky to still have.
Up to five D5 bodies, with lenses AF-S NIKKOR14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED, AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED and AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
I have just started to use the Z 7. Because it’s smaller than the D5, it will hopefully allow me to work in new ways and from new angles, especially shooting tiny creatures.
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED
AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D
In frozen waters from the Gombessa III expedition, Adélie Land, Antarctica, 2015
D4S, AF-S Zoom-Nikkor17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED,ISO 1600, 1/160 sec @ f/7.1
The Gombessa V diving bell and diver 65m down, Mediterranean Sea, 2019
Off the coast of Cassis, Gombessa V, 2019
D4s, AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED, ISO 3200, 1/30 sec @ f/5.6
Just some of the 700 Sharks in the dark, Gombessa IV, French Polynesia, 2017
A coelacanth smiles for its portrait, Gombessa I, Indian Ocean, 2013
Groupers making waves, Gombessa IV,French Polynesia, 2017