French marine biologist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta takes Blancpain’s pioneering spirit to new, unchartered territory for the Gombessa IV project
Returning to the crystal-clear waters of the Fakarava atoll – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in French Polynesia – might sound like a luxury getaway, but Laurent Ballesta is very much a man on a mission.
The marine scientist, wildlife photographer and pioneering deep diver was in Singapore in April to talk about the latest chapter of his Gombessa Project, in partnership with Blancpain. Ballesta’s collaboration with the Swiss watchmaker extends back to 2013, when he embarked on the first Gombessa scientific expedition with the aim of exploring specific underwater phenomena around the globe.
Thanks to Blancpain’s Ocean Commitment label – fuelled by the watchmaker’s historical connection with diving, which dates back to 1953 through the development of Fifty Fathoms (the first modern diving watch) – the resulting series of Gombessa Projects has aced numerous challenges. Tasked with diving to extreme depths and working in hostile seas, investigating scientific enigmas, and bringing back unique photos and videos of ocean phenomena, Ballesta and his team of underwater photographers, geneticists, palaeontologists and biologists have continued to break new ground.
The Gombessa Projects have also seen Ballesta break several records. For example, he spent 24 hours underwater in the Tuamotu Archipelago to witness the mating of 17,000 groupers, and dove to a record breaking depth of 70m in extremely harsh Antarctic conditions during his third Gombessa expedition. Ballesta’s most recent project, Gombessa IV (which took place from June to July last year), turned its focus towards the unusual density of grey reef sharks at the Fakarava atoll. With a population of up to 700 individuals, it is thought to be the largest density of this species ever observed, accompanied by the surprising revelation that they appear to display coordinated hunting behaviour.
Blancpain’s commitment to cofinancing the expedition saw the watchmaker award an additional €250,000 (S$405,000) to Ballesta and his team. Half of the donation made a significant contribution to the Gombessa IV Genesis intermediate project, which took place in 2016, to allow for the development and validation of scientific protocols and observation techniques. As the largest Gombessa expedition so far, Gombessa IV maximized the use of the rest of the donation, along with the full expedition funding from Blancpain’s regular Ocean Commitment programme.