Each July around the full moon, an army descends upon the waters of French Polynesia with a shared goal: to make the ocean, ever so briefly, explode in a fit of grouper sex. The magnificently well-coordinated and fleeting aggregation of these enormous fish attracts the attention of a lot of sharks and, in recent years, marine biologists. Now, a photo capturing the split-second spawning of camouflage groupers has won photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta the title of London's Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021.
We caught up with Ballesta after the news of his victory broke to hear more about his journey to becoming such a proficient tracker and photographer of fish, and how it feels to see a photo that took half a decade to capture receive such high acclaim.
What do you do?
I am a photographer and marine biologist.
What did it take to get here?
I grew up by the Mediterranean Sea, so at an early age I started to explore underwater as my parents would lay at the beach. I was found of Cousteau series and pretending to carry on my own expeditions along his side.
Then I stated scuba diving at the age of 13 years old and haven’t stopped since then.
Underwater photography came a few years later as I felt the need to show people and especially my family and friends what was to be seen down there, as they doubt my incredible stories.
I studied Marine environment and created my company Andromède Oceanology along with my best friend in college Pierre Descamps. After 12 years working with Nicolas Hulot for the French TV program USHUAIA, I started my own expeditions, named after GOMBESSA the coelacanth, Whom I first photographed down at – 120 meters [394 feet] in south Africa in 2010.
How does it feel to have won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021?
I am very proud, not only for myself but also for my team, because I have guys supporting me in these dives to make the best out of the shots. It took 5 years and 3000 hours of diving to get this photograph, people have to be fully dedicated.
I am also very happy for the place itself. This cloud of eggs, of uncertain fate, is shaped like a question mark. I see it as a symbol, that of the uncertainties hanging over the future of global biodiversity, even in places as unspoiled as the Fakarava Reserve in French Polynesia, classified as Man & Biosphere by UNESCO.
To me, this award is a tribute to this beautiful place showing that preservation is key to protect valuable patrimony and I hope it will make the people in charge of this place proud to work for its conservation.
Can you tell us a little about the story behind your winning photograph?
Every year, for five years, my team and I returned to this lagoon in Fakarava, French Polynesia, diving day and night so as not to miss the annual spawning of camouflage groupers that only takes place around the full moon of July. This event is so fast that it is impossible to see it with the naked eye. I only discover my images after the dive.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
That I spend most of my time on the field. Putting these expeditions together is a lot of office work to be rewarded with the dives.
Do you have any particularly funny or frightening stories from your time underwater?
When we came to Fakarava for the first time in 2014, I had planned a 24-hour dive at 20 meters [66 feet]. No one had ever dived at night in the channel. We were here for the spawning but had no idea before the dive that 700 sharks (my team and I counted them) were hunting the groupers at night. I was quite something to be suddenly surrounded by hundreds of excited sharks patrolling the bottom in search for the hiding groupers.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Do not have a career plan! Enjoy what you love doing, and keep your fingers crossed that someday it might work out, don't do it just for career purposes.
Want to hear more about life as an underwater photographer? Check out our interview with cinematographer and underwater stuntman André Musgrove.