19 September 2019
A free diver for 33 years, Laurent Ballesta has been to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea on more occasions than he can probably count. At 100m, the pressure is 13 times greater than that of the surface, meaning on each dive he’s only been able to spend a few minutes at the base, before making the gruelling five hour ascent to avoid the bends. But for his latest expedition, Gombessa V, Ballesta and three others were able to spend a total of 28 days underwater thanks to an innovative pressure chamber.
Combining the saturation diving techniques used in the oil industry with those of modern scuba divers, Ballesta and his team crafted a series of pressurised capsules, which sat on the surface of the water and were kept at the same pressure as the ocean. Connected to a surface platform that takes the divers down to the depths of 100m, the capsules removed the need for slow ascent, allowing them to spend hours diving, rather than minutes.
“The problem with deep diving is never going down; it’s going up,” Ballesta explains. “During this expedition, we continued to go up and down, but at the same pressure, so our bodies still thought we were at the bottom of the ocean.”
Thanks to this ground-breaking technology, the team was able to spend a total of 400 hours outside of the chamber, allowing them to study and photograph species of fish that have never been seen inside their ecosystems before.
“One of the fish we focused on was the moray eel; it’s a very common fish in the Mediterranean, but I have never heard about someone who has reported their mating and reproduction,” says Ballesta. “It was really a privilege to be able to admire their behaviour, and we were lucky to see it and photograph it.”
Ballesta was accompanied by marine biologist Antonin Guilbert, instructor Thibault Rauby and cameraman Yannick Gentil. Their findings will be recorded in a documentary, exhibition and book, which are expected to be unveiled next year. Through his discoveries and photography, Ballesta hopes to educate the world on the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and provide hope, rather than fear, for the future of our oceans.
“I don’t want to be the voice that says ‘my god, this is catastrophic’. We know that,” he states. “I want to prove to people that the ocean is not dead yet. There are still some places where the sea is pristine, full of life, full of colours, and it can look unbelievable.
“This expedition was quite painful; four people living in just five square metres, breathing freezing air – there were a lot of uncomfortable moments. But all four of us are ready to do it again next summer, and we wouldn’t if we had spent time in polluted places – so that’s the proof.”
Swiss watchmaker Blancpain’s connection with diving goes back to 1953, when it unveiled the Fifty Fathoms watch, the first modern diver’s watch created by former CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter. Current CEO Marc Hayek has continued the tradition of championing the underwater world by backing all five of Ballesta’s Gombessa expeditions. blancpain.com