Gil Kebaïli: ‘We must continue the scientific work’

IMG_7635For almost an hour and a half, the director Gil Kebaïli immerses the spectator into an incredible underwater world. Filmed on the Fakarava Atoll, Le Mystère Mérou describes the reproduction of this species of fish that is waiting for the full moon, to reproduce at the same time and in a single day! But not just that… The biologist Laurent Ballesta is also going to achieve the world record for long duration diving: he carries out a 24h dive at the Tetamanu Pass to watch an underwater lifecycle. The images are wonderful and provoke strong emotions…A meeting with the director of this outstanding documentary.



What made you study grouper reproduction?

After twenty years exploring in the Pacific for Nicolas Hulot’s programmes, I had the opportunity to discover places like Fakarava. That is how I heard about this spectacular gathering of groupers when they reproduce. In fact, the grouper relies on the full moon as a benchmark and the current to move back up the atoll and gather until the south pass of Tetamanu. This lasts for a month until D-day arrives. There are as many as 20,000 of them! The event is extraordinary, all the more so as until now it has only been recorded at Fakarava.


You must have had to spend hours underwater to capture moments like this…?

Oh yes! We have 350 hours of footage! So that we didn’t miss anything, we placed five cameramen underwater. Five people who were capable of staying under water for five hours. So at the end of four weeks, we accumulated thousands of pictures. In the end, we spent five weeks in Fakarava for a half-hour event! But we filmed the behaviour of the groupers or other marine species every day. The idea was to transcend underwater images and to make them beautiful they must say something. We are therefore very attentive to behaviour, behaviour achieved from filming hundreds of hours of footage. That’s how we managed to capture duels between groupers or shark predation.


By spending all this time in the marine environment, we imagine that you saw some quite incredible things?

In addition to the spectacular grouper reproduction, this gathering attracts the biggest predators, so a veritable underwater choreography occurs. An outstanding choreography as it only lasts several minutes. And then philosophically, it’s very interesting as we are talking about groupers coming and reproducing, and the sharks come and take the life away. There is a permanent struggle between life and death. It is quintessential to the lifecycle. The film is not therefore just natural history, but also dramatic art. I am making a scientific film for the general public, not for science. It is essential to capture the viewer’s attention.


You must have felt strong emotions when filming underwater?

Yes, particularly when diving at night. Sharks wake at night to hunt. They were attracted by the light that we used, as were the other fish. This therefore created a frenzy and generated very strong images. There was a moment when we were very scared but we were unable to film it as it happened too fast. We saw a 4-metre long hammerhead shark emerge from the depths, it wasn’t hanging around, it was going very fast, it was looking for prey. It was impressive! At that precise moment, yes, we were scared.


Laurent wanted to do a 24h dive to observe an underwater lifecycle. It’s an achievement that had never been achieved before…

In effect, it’s a first. Laurent is a specialist of engaged and committed dives, and he decided to spend 24h underwater. He was curious to know, how groupers live at morning, noon and night? What is their cycle? And he wanted to stay underwater as that meant leaving the underwater world. What he achieved is outstanding and contributes to the development of diving, like Cousteau did in his time. To achieve this dive, he had to prepare physically: stretching and cardio…It’s important as the equipment is heavy, it pushes down on the kidneys, you have to build up the strength to resist.


You used quite specific equipment for this dive, in particular a rebreather instead of bottles, what was the reason for this choice?

This system enables you to breathe without ever releasing bubbles, the air can be recycled in a lime tank that fixes the CO2, and therefore cleans the expelled air. Then, a small bottle sends oxygen, and that comes back into the mouth of the diver. He breathes the same air and the same volume. Rebreathers are a revolution in underwater footage as, thanks to them, one can stay up to 6/7h under water. This provides a new perspective for underwater filming.


This film is also then a technical achievement even if remains above all a veritable scientific testimony to this species and its environment.

Yes, and we must continue this scientific work. We must continue to count the groupers and sharks to understand evolution. We must try to dive other than at full moon, but also to note the passes in which groupers reproduce. Until now the dives offered here have been more touristic, for snapshots. Nobody has really studied the underwater world, and the mechanisms of these spaces, it now needs to be done. Science must continue.


Inside the Doc Thursday 4th February from 10am to 10.30am