Article by Chris Clifford
Into the blue
Laurent Ballesta is a multi-award winning marine photographer. The Frenchman captures unique and captivating moments of marine life
His canvas is the world that exists way down below the crashing of the ocean waves, and in many cases he is the first to discover realms that date back well beyond the first humans. It’s little wonder that Laurent Ballesta’s work is regarded as being so important, as ONBOARD discovers in our exclusive interview. Ballesta, one of the world’s best and most-famous marine photographers will turn 50 in 2024, at which point he will have spent well over half of his life bringing knowledge up from the depths of the oceans. That’s because, in photographing everything from coy sea life creatures to rather more stubborn specimens, he is enriching not just his own passion, but our knowledge of the seas.
Ballesta doesn’t focus his attention on one area, neither in specialism nor geography. From the balmy climes of the Mediterranean to the teeth-juddering Antarctic, his work is reliant purely on the sanctity of the subject.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” begins the three-time Wildlife Photographer of the Year. “When I was a teenager, diving and watching life underwater, I fell in love with it. I think from very early on I knew this is where my career would lay.
“That world I found so captivating. It was dangerous but enlightening, it was expansive yet incredibly private; and although I realised I could bring back incredible photography of what was down there, ultimately by doing that I realised I could push our idea of discovery, as well as protecting the ecology of these incredible spaces too.”
Since becoming renowned for his work over a decade ago, Ballesta’s pursuit of ‘the next thing’ has maintained him not just as one of the very best at his craft, but someone who could drive stories and enchantment from the waves.
When clinching the ‘Portfolio’ category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2022, Ballesta put forward six pictures of some of the most almost clandestine underwater creatures imaginable. “If someone told you that they were villainous creatures from a science fiction movie, you could almost believe them,” he laughs.
“This brand of discovery has really pushed me forward in recent years. The sea still holds so much mystery to us – much more than land ever can now because we’ve trodden every square mile of it – and I want to show that to people.”
Ballesta’s brand of exploration has only been possible by putting to one side a common sea anxiety named thalassophobia – described as an intense fear of bodies of deep, dark water and what exists below the surface, that even some experienced divers can encounter.
Ballesta says: “I think the fear for me is always a much more rational one.
“We did a dive at Adélie Land, Antarctica, and despite the inhospitable environment, what is terrifying there is the pressure we put ourselves under – the fact that every day during the trip we knew it was going to be hard, physically and mentally.
“It’s interesting the stress we can bring on ourselves – a totally human construct in a totally alien environment – but we are always under time pressures.
“It was common that, around five hours of being in the cold, cold water, when sat on the ice and completely tired, deep in your head there would be a little voice saying: ‘Maybe you should take the day off tomorrow!’”
It wasn’t only Ballesta’s own wellbeing that he had to consider, but that of his team and his equipment too, with his cherished Nikon D810 camera often holding centre stage.
“Every day on any project you have to store the equipment, load it, unload it, dry everything, clean it – it’s a really long process. It’s never just a case of diving down, taking photos, resurfacing, and you’re done.
“What often happens is that you plan for a rest day the following day, yet the very last thing you have to do before going to sleep is download the memory card with the day’s photos on it. Predictably enough, when you view them, it quickly feels completely unacceptable to not go out again the following day – it’s that risk you have of missing something special, and almost always, it’s a risk you cannot take, so the following day, off we go again!”
While Ballesta’s renown is spread across many discoveries and many trips, being the first person to take a photograph of the Coelacanth – a huge lobe-finned fish that dates back 360 million years, yet previously thought extinct – that fills him with pride and a continued thirst for adventure. “My dream more than 25 years ago when I was a student was yearning to dive with the Coelacanth,” he says, recalling that excitement. “When I was a student people felt they still existed – there was a belief amongst certainly communities. Then, around the same time, one was found in a trawler net in South Africa and that offered me such hope.
“It wasn’t until 2009 that I went to South Africa to search for it,” he says. “South African underwater explorer Peter Timm had been the first diver to be face to face with one, although only for a short time, and it still hadn’t been properly photographed.
“Unfortunately, Peter died in 2014 trying to rescue a team-mate and he is sorely missed. I waited a long time to feel good enough and confident enough to not only dive with the Coelacanth, but to make serious work of it. That meant not just going deep,” he says, “referencing depths of between 175-200 metres – but staying down there at the bottom.”
He continues: “Finally, in 2013, we were able not just to reach the Coelacanth, but spend 30-35 minutes with him. And when I managed to get that iconic photo, of course a lot of the relief was for me, but so much of the praise was for Peter.
As for the future, Ballesta continues to tread an interesting path between perfect isolation beneath the waves, and a life above it that has even seen him move in celebrity circles. His books are widely published tomes of incredible imagery and impassioned narrative – a snapshot into a world most of us will never see.
Ballesta takes these challenges on as an inspiration and a pioneer, and truly one of the world’s finest.