The highlight of the Blancpain Ocean Commitment event at Icebergs in Sydney was a speech from underwater photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta, who, it must be said, is not unpopular with the ladies. If you like your marine biologists on the Hollywood side, you may enjoy meeting him face to face.
“You had all better sit down,” he said, when he took to the lectern. Which did not bode well. There was a ripple of nervous laughter. No-one likes a long speech, even from a ridiculously good looking scientist slash artist. “Not because I will be boring, but because I am going to tell you a story, like when you were small.”
The kaleidoscope of colour, creativity and mother nature’s creations that followed, both on the screen – James Cameron MUST buy the rights to Ballesta’s entire life, can somebody help arrange this? – blew the room’s mind, collectively. The barmen stopped serving drinks and turned their backs to the crowd, who were also entranced.
8 REASONS DIVING INTO LAURENT BALLESTA’S WORLD WILL BLOW YOUR DAMN MIND (AND MAKE YOU WANT A BLANCPAIN)
- Ballesta has played chicken with lots of sharks. As in underwater, Mexican-Stand-Off style staredowns
There are more occupational hazards for an underwater photographer than you could ever name. There was that one time he witnessed 15,000 Grouper fish in the size of half a soccer field. Which was so interesting and great, until he realised that soon after the Grouper GTG, there would be a shark feeding frenzy GTG. Meaning lots of Grouper were munched and he was, once again, staring down many, many sharks. He also stared down the Coelacanthe, which went a little better – check out this smiley old guy.
- Ballesta regularly visits an undiscovered underwater world that looks EXACTLY like a sequel to Avatar.
He has discovered ‘many, many’ species of incredible marine life that have never been seen or photographed before. He showed us a handful, and it was like Avatar, a comparison he encouraged, when he showed a picture of him watching Avatar on a waterproof iPad with a real life Avatar creature floating by the screen.
- Ballesta became mates with a creature that was meant to have been extinct. (For the last 65 million years or so)
We need to talk about the 2m long Coelacanthe that has been prowling the ocean from the time Tyrannosaurus Rex ruled the land. This thing is a living battle-axe beast, it is awesome and it has spines and fins all over it, made for protecting itself against MEGALADONS (maybe, that’s my extrapolation) but definitely other ocean-borne dinosaurs. The point is, Ballesta did extensive filming of this guy off the coast of South Africa and they bonded; “He was pretty indifferent to be honest, almost like he’s still in the past, but just a really great guy to hang out with. He’s also a diva, sometimes he would come, sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he’d come and then leave after 10 minutes. We never knew.”
- Ballesta watches movies on his underwater iPad while he’s decompressing on the way back to the surface.
Remember this formula; for every 4mins at 100m down he has to decompress for ONE HOUR. So, twenty minute dive? That’s five episodes of Breaking Bad on the way back up. But he doesn’t do it every dive. It really depends on the dive he’s just had. “If it’s been exciting or successful my mind is full of what I have just seen. If it’s been boring, or if we’ve broken equipment it can be quite difficult because in that silence every negative thought can creep in.” Which is where watching the movies on his iPad comes in, obviously.
- Team Time+Tide’s favourite new fishies, that we discovered last night, are:
The spindly crab thing that looked like a praying mantis, with hundreds of babies attached to its antenna. The octopus with about 30 legs all in bright colours. But best of all the actual dragon looking thing with big eyes, like Falcor (the big dog) from The Neverending Story. Also a little tiny fish charmed the absolute heck out of Ceri. Sorry, we can’t print these. But, like this Ballesta pic of a school of fish exploding. They’re INCREDIBLE.
- Ballesta prefers a mechanical watch with a depth gauge on a hand to a digital depth gauge because he can better measure his descent.
This is not a marketing stunt. “I like to be able to gauge the speed of my descent by watching the gauge hand move. That’s really important because going too fast or slow can have big consequences.”
- Diving under ice is amazing, but it has its moments.
“There are lots of challenges of diving under ice in places like Antarctica,” Ballesta later explained. “First, the cold. The difference in one degree at around zero can be the difference between your face actually freezing or not. You also only have one way in and one way out, a little hole cut in the ice. You are operating in complete darkness until your eyes adjust.”
- Laurent has discovered probably hundreds of fish species but none are named after him, because….
“For a fish to be named after me I have to provide a sample. And to provide a sample I have to kill the specimen. This is no problem for me, I am a marine biologist. The problem is I am almost always faced with the choice to collect the sample or photograph it; it is very hard to do both. And for me, the decision is always to photograph it, because then I can share it. I care more about sharing what I see than getting my name on a fish, or naming a fish myself.”