Laurent Ballesta Made The Deepest Ever Dive Under Antarctica To Reveal An Alien World

Wildlife Photographer Of The Year, Laurent Ballesta has taken the world’s deepest photo, at 200m, and this year he pushed the boundaries even further with the deepest ever Antarctic dive…

RISING How have you pushed the boundaries of what is possible for a human to do underwater?
LAURENT BALLESTA, DIVE PHOTOGRAPHER
‘For me, what I am looking for is ‘virgin places’ and animals which have never been seen before. So, the best – and maybe only – way to do this is to make really difficult dives. I have never stopped trying to learn any new diving and photographic techniques which can give me new opportunities to go deeper, to stay underwater longer, to be more discreet and stay quiet and unnoticed by the marine life so that I can observe them in their natural habitat.’

RISING What have been your hardest ever dives?
LB
‘The most difficult were the deep dives in Antarctica because you have all these difficulties, which obviously the first is – it’s deep! And not only that but you have a roof because of the ice above you, meaning that there is only one entrance and one exit. It can be very dark and of course, it’s so, so cold and when you want to make a deep dive, it also means a long dive. If you want to spend a lot of time at the bottom, it means that there will be a lot of compression so you cannot cut your dive. If you spend half an hour at 100m deep you find out how bad the compression is. It also means that you will spend five hours in this water with the temperature at -1.8ºC. That can be really, really unbearable.’

‘It took me seven months to recover from the pain and cold in my toes’

RISING So, how did you bear the cold for long enough?
LB
‘We spent a lot of time on the specialised equipment with a designer supplying electric heaters fitted inside our dry suits and even though we did that, we were still pushing the limits and it was very hard. For example, it took me seven months to recover with pain and cold in my toes. It is also very uncomfortable in the very thick dry suit, because you have five layers of underwear – we had 90kg on our back when you add up the scuba gear, the electrical stuff, the lights, the suit. So, that was very exhausting every day.’

RISING When you dive under the ice the hole starts to freeze over – you describe having to pull yourself through the solidifying slush to exit, and your dive partner’s shovel stunning your head as he digs you out – didn’t you ever wake up terrified about the day’s dive?
LB
‘It sounds odd, but it’s hard to feel fear. Those dives in Antarctica, even though they were harder than anything I’d done before, I was never scared. I was just under pressure because every day that you woke up during that trip, you knew that the day was going to be hard and so it was a bit stressful, but in a good way. But I was never scared in the way that I didn’t want to do it – in fact the opposite… I really wanted to do it. The only moment during the day that we didn’t want to do any more was at the very end of the dive after three, four, five hours of being in the cold, cold water was when you got out of the water, sat on the ice and you were completely tired.’

‘Deep in your head, there is a little voice saying: “Maybe you should take the day off tomorrow?” You say the same to the team and it turns out that they would like a break too. But they continue because you have to store the equipment, load it, unload it, dry everything, clean it – it’s a really long process.’

RISING Did you get a buzz when you downloaded your photos from the day’s diving?
LB
‘The very, very last thing that you do every day before you go to sleep is to download the memory card with all of the photographs that you took and when you view them, it makes it seem completely unacceptable to go through with your rest day, because it’s so unbelievable what you did. It’s a huge privilege to be there and we were welcome in the French scientific circles, because the places we were going were those that other scientists couldn’t. So, it was always our objective to give our best and to make sure we carried out everything we wanted to do. We went diving every day but after that we slept for a whole week.’

‘There is maybe no technique behind it other than ambition and patience’

RISING What has been your most awe-inspiring encounter with an undersea creature?
LB
‘I have this very strong memory from when I was 16, here where I live in the South of France in Montpellier. One day, we were lucky to find a school of basking sharks. They are huge, huge sharks which are very common in England but very rare in the Mediterranean Sea. They can be just massive – around seven metres long – and I was lucky to find them that day and to spend half a day swimming with them; it was amazing. I went back home with such an incredible story to tell but it seemed that people didn’t believe me! That was the time when I thought that I had to take photographs to prove such adventures I was going on and having, were indeed true.’

RISING You’ve taken the world’s deepest photo by a person at 200m down – was that the single most pioneering dive you have ever done?
LB
‘It is not always about being the pioneer. Anywhere that a human being, a crew diver could go will do better and have more success than a robot or a submarine. This is a kind of romantic point of view but it’s a fact that the human eye and brain will make a better job of it than a machine and that’s why I started with the difficult challenges of the Mediterranean Sea. If I had started with a difficult system but in a very wide place, people can become confused with the surroundings being very exotic and calm. Then, I was explaining to them that it’s the French Riviera, the Cote D’Azur. Everybody is diving here. But just because we are going to dive deeper and longer, we are going to show you another world – things that you will never have seen before, because no-one has ever recorded proof of it!’

RISING Why did you choose such a popular location for the deepest photographic dive?
LB
‘I remember the great pleasure I took when I did this same dive over several summers between 2006 and 2008. I dived to a depth of 200m (656ft), very deep photography, and the first exhibition of this work was shown in la Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. All my photographs were put along the promenade and I remember everyone looking at my work, in the same location that they were taken. I remember those people looking at my photographs, then turning their heads and looking into the sea and I imagined what they were thinking about when they realised that the strange creature on the photograph must be very close to them, living in the water below!’

‘In the next 20 years, the famous Emperor Penguin will disappear by about 90-95%’

RISING We are just beginning to understand the effects of climate change to the oceans – have you seen changes in the Antarctic?
LB
‘I’ve been twice in Antarctica – in 2005, I went to the Antarctic Peninsula and in 2016, to the other side, so I cannot compare. But if I was to be rude with you I would say: “Do you really need the evidence from Antarctica to prove that there is climate change in effect?” I am sure that you can see the differences in the world from when you were a child. When I was a child I could see all the wonders of nature arriving every spring, but now it’s gone. So, what I mean is that you don’t need to send artists or photographers to Antarctica to witness climate change, but what you can do is to send them there to witness that this place needs to be maintained and respected, and protected.’

‘But if you want to talk about change, talk with scientists who work with that – it’s very scary. In the next 20 years, the famous Emperor Penguin will disappear by about 90-95%. There may be only two colonies of Emperor Penguin that could survive in the next 20 years and that is very important. When you can feel the climate change here in this latitude, it’s going to be even worse in a higher latitude towards the North Pole.’

RISING What top technique tip would you give to someone taking an underwater photograph?
LB
‘It’s quite weird actually… the photo starts in your imagination, you imagine the perfect shot in your mind, the perfect landscape with the animals. I make the picture in my head of what I would like the photograph to look like, but sometimes it can be luck and sometimes it’s pure exploration. You have to find the right place, the right animal, you have to find the right light. I think that the perfect photo happens when you are able to link these sources of inspiration together.’

‘My inspiration comes from my imagination on one side and on the opposite side there is exploration, and it’s not always easy to marry them up. They are completely opposite and the only way to make this imagination come to life is to explore and find exactly the right situation. There is maybe no technique behind it other than ambition and patience.’

WHAT NEXT? Most of us have seen the viral video of the starving Polar bear, but here’s a report from AP on the 40% reduction in, and early breakup of, Northern Polar ice, the cause of scenes like that…

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Photos: ©Laurent Ballesta / Gombessa Expeditions ©Caroline Schoenfelder / Gombessa Expeditions ©Sylvain Girardot / Gombessa Expeditions