Words: Jemima Wilson
Marine biologist, photographer and research diver Laurent Ballesta is no stranger to intrepid underwater adventure. When exploring the ocean at depths of more than 100m, timing is crucial for his survival. And for many rare aquatic creatures in oceans threatened by global warming, time is equally critical: as temperatures and sea levels rise, for some species, time is running out.
With this in mind, Ballesta recently teamed up with Blancpain for a third diving and photography expedition, Gombessa III, which aimed to measure and raise awareness of the impact of climate change on deep-sea ecosystems in Antarctica. The mission formed the underwater element of the Wild-Touch Expeditions – Antarctica! project and was led by film director Luc Jacquet and documented by Blancpain’s immersive video blog.
Blancpain has developed a close affinity with the ocean over the past six decades. Founded in 1735, the brand has a connection with diving that dates back to 1953, when the first Fifty Fathoms diving watch was created to meet the exacting needs of the French navy’s elite combat swimmers unit. At the time, the requirement was a watch capable of withstanding pressure at depths of about 50 fathoms (around 91.45m). Today, following great technical advancement in both watchmaking and diving equipment, the latest versions of the Fifty Fathoms model are often worn by professional divers such as Ballesta for descents to depths of hundreds of metres.
Blancpain has long been committed to protecting marine life through ocean exploration, as previous Gombessa expeditions have proved. The Gombessa I expedition, in 2013, saw Ballesta and Blancpain travel to South Africa to reveal the secrets of the rare and primitive coelacanth, one of the greatest zoological discoveries of the century. Known locally as Gombessa, it inspired the expedition’s name. Then, in 2014, the Gombessa II mission studied the spectacular spawn of the camouflage grouper fish of the Fakarava atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia.
Dedicated to discovering more about the plethora of little-known deep-sea creatures that dwell in the murky depths of the Antarctic sea, Gombessa III was headquartered at the French Dumont d’Urville scientific base from October to December 2015. It marked the first time a team of technical divers had ventured below the ice in the Adélie Land region of Antarctica.
Each of the pioneering dives captured the first environmentalist images of Antarctica’s deep-sea ecosystems. At the request of high-profile research groups, including the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the National Centre for Scientific Research in Marseilles, the Gombessa III team is contributing to an inventory of deep-sea fauna, sharing previously unseen footage with scientific publications.
Several documentaries will follow the expedition, and an IMAX film produced by Jacquet is also planned. His March of the Penguins, shot in the Antarctic, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2006, and this project is set to be another touching testament to a territory endangered by climate change.