Ocean explorer who snapped SA's dino-fish plans next grand adventure

Marine biologist Laurent Ballesta is preparing to spend three consecutive weeks exploring coral reefs near the bottom of the Mediterranean sea

25 November 2018 - 00:00
Laurent Ballesta meets a coelacanth in South African waters.
Laurent Ballesta meets a coelacanth in South African waters.
Image: Supplied

If a tech-savvy real-estate agent was trying to sell the Earth to an alien couple looking for a starter planet, they would describe it as "cosy". The idea of the world being small has been drilled into us and our home world certainly feels "intimate". Is it really that cosy though?

French underwater explorer Laurent Ballesta doesn't think so. Mankind has been steadily sussing out our surroundings. We've found the South Pole, remote bits of the Amazon jungle and popped over to our celestial neighbour, the moon. What we haven't explored to a large extent is our oceans.

"For me the last wide continent is underwater. There are not a lot of places on land that people haven't already explored. We even know the surface of the moon better than our own oceans, so exploration of the ocean is the most obvious [place to explore]," said Ballesta, who was recently in Johannesburg to serve as the keynote speaker at an event held by Swiss timepiece maker Blancpain.  

This might seem random, but it’s not: the brand has been the main partner in Ballesta’s Gombessa expeditions for the last five years. He’s the ambassador for Blancpain’s limited production dive watch, the X Fathoms, and has said in previous interviews that financing expeditions is expensive, so having a big brand on board makes a big difference.

It certainly made a difference back in 2013 when Ballesta and his small team headed to South Africa to capture what would become world-famous images of a coelacanth in its natural habitat just off Sodwana Bay without the use of submersibles.

"Initially it was a very small expedition. There were just three of my friends and no salaries. I told everyone that if we could find a coelacanth and take the first pictures of it, it would be a success and I would be able to pay everyone. I asked them to accept the risk because adventure is not just about diving, it also involves going out with no salary and trusting everything will work out," said Ballesta.

This was a big deal because up until the 1930s scientists had thought the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that is part of the bridge between when life on this planet was entirely aquatic and when it began to move on land, had been extinct for millions of years.

"For ages people thought this fish was extinct and then suddenly in 1933 we found one, like something from a Jurassic Park film," said Ballesta.

For ages people thought this fish was extinct and then suddenly in 1933 we found one
Laurent Ballesta

"The difference is that in Jurassic Park you have a park, you have your car and dinosaurs are all around you. For the coelacanth it was very frustrating. It was proved that it was still alive but it was very deep, very rare and basically unreachable," he said.

From that period onward live ones were spotted occasionally but always through the window of a submarine. In the mid 2000s South African diver Peter Timm dove deep enough to find a couple of these dino-fish and word spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, diving deep enough to find a coelacanth is dangerous and a number of coelacanth paparazzi would die trying to emulate Timm.

With all of this in mind the lead-up to Ballesta's big photo shoot was tense. The expedition, code-named Gombessa, had been years in the making. Ballesta had pitched his idea to a number of brands and found that only luxury watchmaker Blancpain shared his vision for this expedition. 

Just getting to the site where the fish was believed to live had taken high-level wrangling and there was a risk of dying. The team, however, were prepared and confident.

"I recall saying: 'Guys, remember that if we come face to face with him [the coelacanth], it is not the end of the story, it's just the beginning. So I don't want to see anybody make high fives and take selfies with the coelacanth'," said the diver.

"Just because it is a coelacanth didn't mean the picture was going to be amazing. Remember for most people it's just an ugly fish," he added.

WATCH | Laurent Ballesta wins prestigious award for taking world's first photograph showing the submerged part of an iceberg in its entirety 

Part of the reason there's been so little underwater exploration is that we know only an estimated 5%-10% of what goes on between coasts. This presents difficulties, especially for divers.

"The hardest part was not photographing the coelacanth but getting to his ecosystem and back," said Ballesta.

The deeper one goes and the longer one spends there, the slower your ascent has to be. Often called the bends, decompression sickness happens when divers come to the surface too fast. During a dive the change in pressure causes gas bubbles to form in the body. Once the pressure starts to lessen due to ascent, those bubbles want to escape. Imagine a champagne bottle. Uncork it slowly and all you get is a sexy puff of smoke. If you're too eager, on the other hand, you are going to make a mess. Decompression sickness can cause joint pain and fatigue, paralysis and even death. Thus at certain depths 20 minutes of diving can cost as much as five hours' worth of decompression.

This 2015 photo from Laurent Ballesta's Gombessa III expedition shows amazing underwater lighting in Antarctica.
This 2015 photo from Laurent Ballesta's Gombessa III expedition shows amazing underwater lighting in Antarctica.
Image: Supplied

The dangers of decompression make his latest exhibition a sphincter clencher. Having dived beneath icebergs in Antarctica, witnessed an ultra rare mega spawning of Groupers and been in the thick of a thousands-strong shark AGM in French Polynesia, Ballesta has decided to try something a little closer to his home town of Montpellier. Next year he is planning to spend three consecutive weeks near the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

"We want to be able to be down there for five, eight hours or even a full day working at the bottom using a pressurised bell and a five square metre pressurised chamber for four of us to sleep, rest and eat," he explained.

The idea is to explore the Mediterranean coral reefs which lie about 60m-120m below the surface, much deeper than their tropical counterparts.

"We won't do our decompression at the end of the one dive but at the end of the whole expedition so we will decompress for three days. It is a long one but that's fine because I'm going to get to spend three weeks down there in exchange for just three days. I'm used to diving for just 20 minutes and having to do decompression for five hours so this is much better," he said.

Decompression sickness is not even his primary fear. Divers on oil rigs use a similar pressurised bell technique to the one Ballesta and his team will use in the Mediterranean. The only difference is that they are generally tethered to the bell. With this mission Ballesta & Co will have no tether to the bell, thus allowing them to roam freely. If you have kids, you can see the problem.

"The biggest issue we're facing is that we are alone outside the bell without a link. So if we lose the bell, we won't be able to swim up to the surface for help because that will take days," he explained. 

It's been a long time since names like Scott, Mallory, Armstrong and Cousteau tickled our collective fancy with their daring feats of discovery. Perhaps that is because most of us think that it's a small world and we've more or less peered into all of its nooks and crannies. Ballesta, like the explorers before him, is out to show us that the world is far more spacious that we could have ever imagined.