Laurent Ballesta's photos provide a whole new perspective of the Mediterranean. We spoke with him about his passion and his expedition.
Laurent, you studied marine biology but are now also an underwater photographer. How did that come about?
I was always frustrated by the fact that, compared to other scientists, marine biologists can spend very little time doing research onsite—under the water. A botanist roams the woods for weeks at a time, but we're lucky if we can dive for an hour a day. By taking photos, I can in a sense extend my dive. I am able to examine the images later, zooming in to see things that I missed when I was underwater.
Your photos show places and creatures that many people will never see firsthand. Is it your intention to spread the word about the beauty of this endangered world?
Honestly, first and foremost, I want to do something that I enjoy. Still, I hope that through my work I'm creating awareness of these places. I'm saying, 'Look, people, it's all down there. Now you can't say you didn't know.' But I doubt that beautiful pictures alone can cause people to change their behavior.
Beauty is something that loses its appeal very quickly. People used to think that showing the beauty of the ocean would be enough to make people love and respect it, but that thought seems a bit too naïve to me.
Then what drives you to keep exploring the underwater world?
I think the only thing that can capture our attention is the mystery; we are drawn in by the mystery. It helps that its beautiful, but more importantly, it has to be new. On my expeditions, three things are important to me—I want to advance scientific study, the diving has to be challenging, and I hope to photograph something that has never been seen before. For 90 percent of all living creatures, all we know about them is that they exist. I'm eager to find out more about their behaviors, such as, what do they eat? How do they mate? How do they live?
To do that, you spent 28 days in extreme confinement. Were you ever too cramped in your dive pod?
When you do dives like that, you're so incredibly tired afterwards that you don't even mind that you don't have room. You just want to eat and sleep.
What was the most uncomfortable part of your expedition?
The cold. At 14 degrees, it wasn't technically cold. I've dived at minus 1.8 degrees in Antarctica, and yet we froze more in the Mediterranean. This was due to the high-pressure conditions under water. Temperature and pressure are directly related, which is something you easily forget on land. We also breathed in a gas mixture with an extremely high helium content. This causes you to freeze from the inside out. The cold down there doesn't bite you; it's like a poison. With every exhalation, you lose a little bit of heat. It was tough, especially at first, but if I had the money and the conviction, I would have talked everyone into adding another week!
Thank you very much for the interview!
As a child Laurent Ballesta dreamed of an adventurous life like his big role model: Jacques Cousteau, pioneer of oceanic exploration and marine filmmaker of the first hour. A dream come true: Today Ballesta is not only a marine biologist but one of the most renowned wild life photographers worldwide. He has led numerous exploration missions and four GOMBESSA Expeditions, all marked by triple challenges of a technical, scientific and artistic nature.