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Xavier Safont : Deep-sea explorer

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Some treasures are hidden on the ocean floor. With their numerous diving sites and rare fauna, the waters around Mauritius have attracted the lens of the Catalan photographer Xavier Safont. Portrait of an explorer who feels most at home surrounded by moray eels and turtles.

For over forty years, the award-winning submarine photographer Xavier Safont explored the deep-sea waters all over the world. The Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean Sea or the Indian Ocean – with each new dive, he feels the same amazement, the same yearning, a mixture of apprehension and attraction: “I always feel this fear before diving, Xavier admits. It’s like visiting a new world, you never know what’s in store. But once I’m under water, I’m in my element: the fear melts away leaving pure wonder and delight.”

And yet nothing destined him to become an underwater photographer. “My family could not have been further removed from this world, he confesses. My parents couldn’t even swim! I was taught by a cousin of my mother’s.” Having grown up with the films of commandant Cousteau, Xavier wanted a taste of this ocean of mystery. At the age of 16, he enrolled in the diving school in his village, and did his first real scuba diving in the waters around the Costa Brava, Catalonia.


The need to shed a new light


“When I came back from my excursions, my friends and family asked me, ‘But what did you see?’ It was to answer this question that I took up underwater photography.” Once he had started, nothing could stop him pursuing his dream. Over the years, Xavier has honed his skill and learnt to master the parameters of the ocean environment. Down in the depths, there is much less light, and the colours fade. The biggest challenge for an underwater photographer is to create your own light, using flashes and underwater torches. Only then does the whole scene open up before your eyes.

Forty-two years after his first dive, Xavier reckons that his best experiences of deep-sea diving have been off the coast of Mauritius. “In Mauritius there is a whole host of small, very rare species. They’re like ocean insects, in all shapes and colours,” Xavier describes. He talks of the white-barred rubberlip, whose young waddles along like a miniature mermaid, the Mauritian clown fish, recognisable by its three white stripes, or the fluorescent-coloured sea slugs. Near the Stella Maru shipwreck or in the deep waters of the coral garden, the photographer loves to watch the dancing Durban shrimp and – “the epitome of perfection” – the little dragonfish, with its two wings and long thin snout.

In addition to macrophotography, Xavier enjoys associating man with the ocean in his photos. “I like to juxtapose shots, so you get an idea of how huge the scale is, or indeed, how small,” he explains. In many of his photos, you can see a silhouette hiding behind a coral reef, a turtle or a school of fish, blending into the background like a floating shadow. Or showing that man is just one species among the thousands that surround him….

Now aged 60, Xavier has no intention of hanging up his wetsuit. “My thirst for discovery is unquenchable!” Next, he will go to see the Jabeda shipwreck or the shark basin, la Fosse aux Requins, in the north, while awaiting the ultimate satisfaction of seeing a whale, one of the last creatures yet to be included in his well-stocked photograph album.


Diving World Mauritius

Some trips can last longer than expected. Having left France to spend a few months in Mauritius 25 years ago now, François Besson still hasn’t bought his return ticket. Enchanted by the ocean from his very first dives off the coast of South Africa, he, together with his wife Christelle, started Diving World Mauritius, a chain of four diving centres whose excellence has attracted tens of thousands of aquatic explorers.

Christelle speaks five languages and knows everything there is to know about the ocean fauna and flora, and François is an expert diver who loves to take visitors from all over the world to see the ocean – beginners as well as the more experienced. “Under water, we share an experience that is both exceptional and at the same time very intimate. With each dive, I get the same thrill of seeing people’s smiling faces as they come out of the water.”

Diving World Mauritius also does its bit towards protecting the environment, which has earned it a Padi Green award. The firm uses only biodegradable products and this year, it has planned to start a coral farm by replanting cuttings of live coral on wooden posts driven into the sea floor.


By Fausto Munz
Photographs Xavier Safont