Laurent Ballesta is a marine biologist and the youngest photographer to be awarded the Palme d’Or at the Festival Mondial de l’Image Sous-Marine (World Festival of Underwater Images). To date he is the only person to win it three times over. Ballesta has had his work published in some of the most renowned French and international magazines. For 12 years, he also appeared on French television in the documentary programme Ushuaia Nature. In this capacity Ballesta travelled all over the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Siberia to the Amazon.
At the age of 24, Ballesta discovered a new species of fish in the Western Mediterranean – the Andromeda goby and in 2000, he founded Andromede Oceanology, a company specialising in scientific expertise in the marine environment. In 2007, Ballesta co-authored the book Planet Ocean with Pierre Descamp (National Geographic edition). In spring 2006, the Senate of the French Republic paid tribute to his work by staging a public exhibition in the streets of Paris.
He and his team have developed new diving protocols using electronic rebreathers. This has led him to work on a number of deep-sea wildlife projects from 2007 to 2009 in the French Mediterranean, in Patagonia, and in New Caledonia. New species have been photographed on each of these missions. On one occasion he took the deepest photograph ever taken, at 190 metres. He achieved his oldest dream in 2009 and 2010: that of taking the very first underwater shots of the inaccessible coelacanth, the famous living fossil that up till then had only been filmed out of a submarine. These unique photographs were published in National Geographic (USA) in March 2011 and he received the Hans Hass Award in February 2013 for his scientific and educational work dedicated to marine biodiversity. Ballesta dove again with the coelacanth in 2013 for a scientific mission sponsored by Blancpain and ordered by the Paris Natural History Museum.
The film, Diving with the Coelacanth, about this epic project, was screened at the ADEX 2015 Film Festival.
Laurent Ballesta talked to the publisher of Scuba Diver OCEAN PLANET, John Thet: “I started out freediving. At the age of eight or nine we used to go to the south of France, Montpellier, to the beach. But my passion for the ocean came not from the sea itself, it came from the images of the sea I saw on TV, from Cousteau Society Films, or from the film The Big Blue. In the 70s and 80s, they started to have a lot of images of the underwater world on TV, and I watched TV a lot. I used to play in the pool and pretend I was somewhere in the Pacific. I did my very first scuba dive when I was 13 years old.
My ambition as a kid was to be an explorer. So that was what I was looking for with diving, to explore. And when I really got into it, we really were exploring new sites. There were not a lot of divers in the 80s and 90s and so everywhere was a bit unknown. I was lucky enough to be living in a little-known place and every weekend, every summer, when we went diving, my friend and I, we were the Cousteau Society. These weren’t extraordinary dive sites, but most of the time we were the very first people to dive them.
I remember my very first trip to a famous place; I was only 19 years old. It was the first time I took a plane, and I went to the Red Sea. It was going to be my first time in tropical area with coral reef and full of fishes, so I was very impatient – I had spent more than 10 years diving, swimming in my region where diversity is quite poor.
After the first dive, I was completely disappointed. You go on the boat and you see that there are 100 other boats and you have a guide who tells you “So at this rock you’re going to see the Napoleon, 10 metres later you’re going to stop and see the barracuda…” No sense of exploration. Of course the dives were nice, full of coral, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.
What I cared about was the feeling that I was doing something new. And that day I realised that I was not focused on being in the best place in the world, I was more focused on finding something different.
When you look at the Cousteau films, the most interesting guy is the marine biologist. It’s the marine biologist with the answers to all the questions; he knows all of the names of the fish and their behaviour. It was obvious that I had to become a marine biologist.
And in 1998 I changed my national service from military to scientific and went to French Polynesia to study fish larvae. It was a very important time because I realised that even if you’re doing pure science, or you’re undertaking an expedition and making a film, you are exploring in the same way. You go underwater and you try to see what happens.
And now I’ve been taking images underwater for 25 years. My equipment has evolved over time. I was inspired by David Doubilet, first and foremost. But to be honest, now I am looking to a lot of terrestrial wildlife photography for inspiration, Nature in general; I see what they are doing when they’re shooting lions and elephants, and I see if can apply the same techniques to underwater photography.
When I finished university I founded a little NGO with a guy I was at university with. The aim of this NGO was just to undertake scientific research and to make images and to connect the two. And it worked quite well. Now, eight years later and we are working on a wide range of activities from pure science and ecological management to underwater mapping, underwater advice for coastal management, all the way to artistic work with photo galleries and publishing. We also do expeditions. So the activities are very broad but still it’s all about going underwater to see what is happening.
For me there are three things that are important every time I undertake an expedition. We have to succeed in a technical diving challenge, a scientific challenge, and an image challenge. If we can link the three, I call the project a “Gombessa”, because that’s what we did with the coelacanth. It was very difficult diving: For science the coelacanth was the most important discovery of the last century, and these animals have never been photographed by a diver before. So the three elements were there.
Everywhere you go, when you’re more than 60 metres down, everything is new. Really, everything we know about deep water ecosystems has been gleaned from dives with bottom times of just a few minutes, and people think they can be called specialists after spending these few minutes in a place.
Can you be a specialist in African lions if you spend just 10 minutes a day with the lion for one week a year? Of course not. But with deep diving people spend 10 minutes at 60 metres and write a book with that experience.
For me there is everything still to discover. And proof of that is that everywhere we go with this new way of diving, very long, deep dives, we came back with new species – new fishes, new crustaceans, new shellfish. This method of exploration works – it works very well.
I’m not old enough to give advice. But what can I say is that it’s very important to have dreams, and it’s really not always important to realise them. It’s nice to realise some of them, but the most important thing is to have dreams. I’m pretty sure that to be happy you don’t need to realise them every time. You just need to realise some. I don’t know if that is clear advice, but for me it’s clearer and clearer year after year.
Last year Laurent was Guest of Honour at ADEX 2015. He is back this year as a speaker at the ADEX 2016 Main Stage, presenting his book (Gombessa: A meeting with the coelacanth) at the ADEX 2016 book festival and screening his film (Gombessa II, The Grouper Mystery) at the ADEX 2016 Film Festival.