To anyone familiar with marine underwater photography, the name Laurent Ballesta will be said with reverence. A renowned marine naturalist, underwater photographer, and pioneer in the use of highly innovative diving equipment, Ballesta has been supported by Blancpain since 2012, when his Gombessa Expeditions project kicked off.

Ballesta founded the project as a way to promote a better understanding of deep-sea ecosystems, in particular, those that have remained inaccessible and unknown until now. Named after a rare prehistoric fish that was once thought to have been extinct, the project has already resulted in five major expeditions, all supported by Blancpain, as well as additional missions to Reunion Island, the Philippines, and Polynesia. Ballesta and his team use state-of-the-art closed-circuit rebreather diving techniques to reach extreme depths and bring back unique scientific data, photographs, and videos (The rebreather scuba device allows users to breathe their own air over and over again. This is achieved by removing exhaled carbon dioxide through the use of certain chemical compounds). Their activities are consistently marked by multiple challenges of a technical, scientific and artistic nature.

 

 

Continuing its partnership with Ballesta, Blancpain backed the fifth Gombessa expedition, which was a new exploration mission that took place in the Mediterranean off the French coast throughout July. Ballesta and his team of three divers underwent an unprecedented experience. They lived together in a five-meter square pressurised chamber for 28 days in order to explore the great depths 120 metres below the surface without any time constraints.

Accompanying Ballesta were Antonin Guilbert (marine biologist and professional diver), Thibault Rauby (dive instructor and lighting assistant) and Yanick Gentil (diver and underwater cameraman). When they were not underwater working on their tasks, the divers lived in the chamber — a space kept under pressure being 13 times greater than at the surface — which contained two bunks, a small table, and a few shelves. They spent most of the time resting and getting their strength back. The living chamber contained a service hatch which enables the surface team to pass them food and hot drinks.

Difficult to access and hard to study, the depths and the coralligenous (coral producing) reefs explored are not well-known to marine biologists. And yet, faced with the environmental impact of humans, these reefs have become refuges for biodiversity.

This latest expedition gave the divers the time they needed to discover them and conduct various scientific missions: mapping, analysing ecosystems, researching rare species and studying pollution levels in the Mediterranean. The expedition also opened up new perspectives for archaeology. The divers explored various wrecks and carried out tasks that no human or robot had been able to perform until now.

 

 

For the first time, the expedition combined saturation diving with scuba using closed circuit rebreathers. The objective was to reveal the still well-kept secrets of a Mediterranean that we believe we knew well, but which remains full of mysteries.

Each expedition is characterized by a scientific mystery, a diving challenge and the promise of unprecedented images, and Gombessa V is no exception to this rule. In order to allow the time to perform a whole series of scientific protocols commissioned by research centers and to illustrate these deep ecosystems, the Gombessa team has developed a world first: the combination of saturation diving with scuba using closed circuit rebreathers. Saturation diving enables professional divers to work on underwater construction sites by connecting them to the surface with an umbilical line that provides them both with respiratory gas and allows them to communicate. The length of time they spend underwater is theoretically unlimited, but they can only move a few metres around the area in which they are working.

 

 

Scuba diving allows free movement, but is characterized by strict time constraints. For a few minutes spent at great depth, several hours of decompression are needed in order to avoid any risk of accident. The combination of these two techniques makes it possible for the first time ever to avoid any need for decompression during the expedition, and to conduct a single four-day session at the end of the mission.

Ballesta and his three companions were thus able to perform explorations lasting up to eight hours a day in order to achieve their complex objectives. As with previous expeditions, Gombessa V will be the subject of a feature-length documentary film, an exhibition and a book, which in 2020 will reveal the discoveries made by Ballesta’s team to audiences all over the world.

 

GETTING TO KNOW LAURENT BALLESTA

 

 

The man behind the Gombessa expeditions, Laurent Ballesta is a world-renowned photographer, biologist and an expert of the underwater world. Author of 13 books dedicated to underwater photography, he was the youngest photographer to be awarded the “Plongeur d’Or” at the Festival International de l’lmage Sous-Marine d’Antibes. Here are the highlights of his career:

1999: Becomes scientific advisor for marine environmentalists on French TV programme Ushuaia Nature alongside explorer and presenter Nicolas Hulot.

2000: He and Pierre Descamp founded the association “L’Œil d’Andromède” with the aim of combining ocean research with artistic appreciation of the marine environment. Eight years later, this led to the creation of a company, Andromède Océanologie.

2007: Laurent Ballesta takes the deepest photograph ever obtained by a diver, at -190 m, off the coast of Nice.

2009: He organises a secret expedition to South Africa to fulfil a lifelong dream of swimming with the gombessa (another name for the coelacanth) and brings back the first ever photo of the living fossil by a diver. The mission led to the first Gombessa expedition, four years later. Laurent Ballesta has led five Gombessa expeditions.