“Our descent has taken less than three minutes. How can one believe that this other planet is but three minutes from our own? Here on the bottom, time doesn’t have the same meaning. The proof? The way there is measured in minutes, whereas the way back is measured in hours.”
– Laurent Ballesta
Pursuing his childhood dream of meeting the Coelacanth fish in its natural environment, thought to be extinct 65 million years ago, has driven Laurent Ballesta very far. He descended to unprecedented depths to swim and observe the animal representing the crossroads between sea and land-life, instead of setting up hypotheses in laboratories based on recovered dead specimens or peering at the screens of submergible cameras. In the world of the Coelacanth – or Gombessa as the people of Comoros call it – where every second counts, Blancpain accompanied Laurent Ballesta and his team in this research.
On the Blancpain Ocean Commitment Roadshow at Baselworld we spoke to him about the abyss, which he conveys to us continental beings with vivid living snapshots.
Laurent Ballesta at the Blancpain Ocean Commitment exhibition in Baselworld 2016, photo credit: Blancpain
Gombessa projects with Blancpain
How did your and Blancpain’s paths cross?
“In 2000 Peter Timm was the first human who looked into the eyes of the Coelacanth. This is when plays in my imagination started to evolve into a real project. I knew that I was not ready for such a dive thus I prepared until 2010, when Peter led me to the place where he had seen them. This is when I first encountered the Gombessa.” – Laurent Ballesta started.
“I started to look for partners to be able to conduct research on these fish. It took almost 3 years to meet Mr. Marc A. Hayek, the CEO of Blancpain, but it was 5 minutes to convince him about the project. It was the encounter of two minds in love with the underwater universe and he got immediately excited.”
The meeting at Baselworld 2012 ended up in a successful exploration project, which have since become a series of “Gombessa projects” under the aegis of the Blancpain Ocean Commitment initiative.
What are the aims of the Gombessa projects?
“The « real » Gombessa project was the first, of course. However, as an acknowledgement to Blancpain, who supported my consequent missions, I kept the name the same. Gombessa II aimed to shed light on the “Grouper Mystery”, when thousands of marbled groupers come together for 24 hours to mate in the Fakarava atoll, in French Polynesia. We returned from Gombessa III last December, where we studied and filmed sea-life under and over the Antarctic ice together with Luc Jacquet and Vincent Munier.
All share the motivation to explore something not seen and filmed before and at the same time to advance diving equipment and techniques.”
Curiosity vs. risk
What brings someone to 200 meters underwater or to spend 24 hours continuously down there?
“Okay, let me emphasize something. We are not some kind of super humans and we are far from doing it for the sake of chasing records.” – he notes. “We want to study and film species in their natural habitat and therefore we have to develop new techniques to expand our working zone. Our aim is to research marine life in their wild environment and to find new ways for others too to work safely underwater.”
It is a dangerous activity, which has unfortunately claimed many lives. Planning and adhering to the protocol are important, but widening the boundaries always comes at a great risk by facing the unknown let it be physical or mental.
How do you know that you are ready for such dive?
“I do exercise like many other people, but I am no different to someone jogging regularly in the park from this perspective. I am not the best diver, nor the best marine biologist. I am just seeking to gradually gather experience with nature, physics and new diving methods. I cooperate with other people, who have already seen what I have not or have worked in great depths or for extended periods, such as the technical divers servicing the Channel Tunnel. These give new perspectives, but mentally, you have to know what you are capable of on the very day of the diving.”
In great depths, such as at 120 meters below sea level at Sodwana, South Africa during the Gombessa I expedition you spend 30-34 minutes working at the bottom of the sea, which requires about 4 hours of compulsory decompression time. What do you do during such a long period?
“Yes, and every 4-5 additional minutes spent on that level requires an hour more decompression. So it was hard to leave the Coelacanth, especially since most of the times during the exploration we could not find them – still you must be sober and start the ascend. When out in the open waters slowly after one dive to another I alter the surfacing boredom and anxiety into outward curiosity towards the smallest organisms that surrounds me. The 200m dive at a steep wall in South France was different: the entire trip was a planned exploration surveying the inhabitants of the rocks.”
Blancpain X Fathoms
Naturally, Blancpain has also provided an extreme timing equipment to the extreme scientific project, the Blancpain X Fathoms.
In 1953 Blancpain developed the Fifty Fathoms diving watch. The “fathom” is a unit of measurement equalling 1.8 metres, mainly used in reference to the depth of water. Upon the creation of the watch, the depth divers could reach was 50 fathoms and the French Navy required a piece that could handle even this depth. Thus the Fifty Fathoms was created, and in my opinion this 1953 version is one of the most beautiful diving watches to this day.
See fantastic examples of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms series in the gallery below.
The X Fathoms was introduced in 2011 at a spectacular event in the aquarium of the Dubai Mall. It is just over 6 fathoms in depth, so even though it was a nice intro, the real-life on-duty tests were the ones Mr. Ballesta and his team took them for.
The particularity of the instrument is that it provides timing and depth gauging functions in an all-mechanical way. Depth is measured on two scales (90m and 15m, the latter with +/- 30cm precision) by employing an amorphous metal alloy as a membrane. Its deformation is not linear, therefore engineers applied an asymmetrical toothing of the rack and pinion. The timepiece also provides a 5-minute retrograde safety stop meter to aid the crucial decompression stops.
Blancpain Ocean Commitment projects – what’s next?
Laurent Ballesta is walking in the footsteps of his compatriots Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Albert Falco. He and his team have been stretching the boundaries of human performance and managed to deliver information about new spices and others we know so little of. In our conversation he left no doubt that after the Coelacanth, the groupers and the underwater fauna of the Antarctica he is already looking at the next target in his agenda.
Until then, browse the fantastic album and check out the documentary recently released with his excellent commentary.
Photo credits: Blancpain, Loupiosity.com.
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