Last month I went to the Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) in Singapore and as part of my work for Japanese scuba diving website Ocean +α, spoke to marine biologist and research diver Laurent Ballesta, who has filmed the legendary bottom-dwelling sea creature coelacanth. During our talk, Laurent told me about how he got into diving, his work filming the coelacanth, and his recent visit to Japan where he gave a talk at a dive fair in Tokyo the weekend before ADEX.
Here is the link to the interview on Ocean +α’s website (Japanese only): https://oceana.ne.jp/oversea/56153
…….and a rough translation (many thanks to Fabien at Andromeda Oceanologie for the 3 photos below that have been used here and in the Japanese website):
The coelacanth was thought to have undergone extinction about 65 million years ago, but underwater photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta from Montpellier in the south of France managed to successfully film it at a depth of 120m.
Following last weekend’s Marine Diving Fair held in Tokyo, Laurent went to Singapore’s Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) where he held a photo exhibition and talked about filming the coelacanth.
I was able to have a one-to-one chat with Laurent during my visit to ADEX.
Considered a living fossil, the coelacanth was first discovered in South Africa in 1938, astonishing and exciting academics and the rest of the world. Since then it has been found in Africa (South Africa, Comoro and Tanzania) and Indonesia. Known as Gombessa by local people, its discovery is one of the most important of the 20th century.
—-How did you become interested in marine biology and diving?
“Through movies, Cousteau adventures, documentaries, what I saw on TV. The diver seemed like a hero, even more important than the sea and nature, the wildlife itself, and that gave me the wish to become something like that.”
—-Tell us a bit about the diving in France.
“I’ve dived all over France, but my place is the south of France. If you’re interested in marine life, there are nice dive sites all over the world. Even Singapore is surrounded by ocean so there must be some good places. The south of Montpellier is quite a poor diving spot but there are plenty of discoveries there. That’s where my first impressions of diving come from. It’s a special place for me and there are a lot of interesting species to see.”
—-You set up a company Andromeda Oceanology. Can you tell us a bit about the work you are doing now?
“The idea behind this was that we didn’t want to be only researchers and scientists at a university, be busy and never move, or to become just travellers or journalists with no opportunity for research. We wanted to be everything so we created this association that is now a company, a company that has everything like research, science, expeditions, filming, because we knew that was possible and even necessary. Now we are involved in a lot of projects, some are scientific studies like pollution studies that are not so interesting, others are expeditions, but no matter what we do, we never forget to make the best possible image.”
—-How important are underwater photos in your work?
“They’re extremely important, and I have this strong feeling that I want to continue my work because of the very fact that I am taking photos. I feel pushed to continue. Thanks to photos, various doors have opened and I even managed to get a sponsor for the coelacanth project. So many things happened because I took home photos of the coelacanth. Underwater photos are very important.”
—Do you have any advice when it comes to underwater photos?
“Don’t believe that an underwater photo comes from the photographer. It comes from the subject. Divers say that an underwater photo is theirs, that they took it, that they created it, but the most important thing is the subject, not the photographer. Instead of saying a photo is yours, you need to respect the subject and understand that you have been able to take a good photo thanks to the subject. Then, once you have understood that, you can start to think that something will come from you one day, ask yourself how you can take a good photo. The most important thing is to find a good subject.”
—-Why do you dive deep?
“Because the ocean is deep and for me it is obvious that diving is not just to make deep dives, it’s to make longer dives. As long as you dive for a long time you bring back more stuff. I have a problem with the diving industry because there is no opportunity to dive deep or experience more challenging conditions. Because of their safety regulations dive shops never promote diving challenges, they never want to promote danger. Some shops say you will die if you dive deeper than 40m but of course you can go deeper than 40m! The problem is that everyone is focusing on shallow water. If you don’t help people to make some non-official dives, deep dives, strong currents, they won’t become good divers. If young divers aren’t given challenges…..then you are going to kill diving itself.”
—-Can you tell us a bit about the coelacanth and the deep sea?
“The coelacanth is the biggest discovery of the last century. It’s something unique in the world. It was supposed to have disappeared 65 million years ago so it was impossible to find and that is why nobody believed that it would be found. After taking my photos I looked for palaeontologists and the reaction was unbelievable.”
(Here is a bit more from Laurent’s exhibition and talk to add to the above question): “Very little sunlight penetrates the deep sea, it’s a harsh environment. There is also no guarantee that the coelacanth will appear. Sometimes he doesn’t appear for a very long time, and even if he appears he quickly disappears again. Because of that, I feel honoured to have filmed and photographed him even for a very short time. The coelacanth is like a star. Filming him is like waiting for your favourite actor to appear and as soon as he does, taking a photo in desperation.”
—-Where do you like to dive?
“What I know I don’t like is where there are too many people. I prefer places with not a lot of creatures, muddy bottoms, darker waters, somewhere boring that is not popular, because I love to have the feeling, even if it’s my imagination, to feel that I am an explorer. I like places that make me feel like that.”
—-How was your talk at Tokyo’s Marine Diving Fair?
“I discovered that in Japan they are fanatics of the coelacanth. There is a museum called the coelacanth museum dedicated to deep marine life. A lot of people came to the talk because they already knew about the coelacanth. That was great. I was delighted.”
—-What impression do you have of Japan’s oceans?
“I dived in Japan recently but I went to a river to see the giant salamander. It looks like a living Pokemon! I can’t say I dived in Japan because I didn’t dive in the sea and my time in Japan was not so much about diving but more about mountains, climbing, drinking…the locals made me feel very welcome and I was really happy about that.”
My impressions after the interview
Laurent’s footage and photographs were extremely exciting to see. To stand out as a diver, it’s not enough to simply take photos. You need a goal, a dream or an idea and then do your utmost to achieve that, right until the end. That is very important, and I was impressed by Laurent’s skills, passion and determination.
At ADEX it was very clear just how much he loves the deep sea and the coelacanth.
To become involved in things like underwater surveys, conservation or filming, you have to love the sea, and in order to love the sea, you have to know it. Talking to Laurent, I felt that that’s why he dives deep, for such long periods of time.