Man of commitment

Interview by Will Harrison
Photographs by Marc Hayek

For Blancpain CEO, Mr Marc Hayek, one attribute surpasses all others: commitment.

In late 2019, Oceanographic Magazine visited Blancpain’s understated headquarters on the northern shore of Lake Geneva to speak with CEO Mr Marc Hayek. To the uninitiated this might seem like an interview more suited to a business magazine, but Mr Hayek, a passionate ocean conservationist and underwater photographer, is not your average CEO, and Blancpain, through its hugely influential Ocean Commitment programme, is not your typical Swiss watchmaker. There is something unique happening in the sleepy town of Paudex. We wanted to speak with the man spearheading that movement…

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Mr Marc Hayek (MH): For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent my springs and summers on the coast of the Mediterranean. As a child I was a big fan of Cousteau and spent lots of time freediving and snorkelling. I couldn’t wait to turn 12 and learn to scuba dive. I was particularly interested in fish life. I enjoyed being on boats or on shore, but it was the underwater world that fascinated me. That is how it has been for as long as I can remember.

OM: Did that passion for the ocean continue unabated into adulthood?

MH: The passion, yes. My interaction with the underwater world, not until I reached my twenties. During my teenage years my friends didn’t enjoy scuba diving like I did, they just didn’t share that fascination with the underwater world. We spent our time doing other things. Then during my twenties, I met some people who shared the same ocean interests and so I started diving more. Some of those people are still dive buddies today. Since then, the ocean has been ever-present. I’ve not stopped diving since!

OM: Blancpain’s ocean connection began with the Fifty Fathoms dive watch in 1953. In the years since, that connection has evolved significantly to become Blancpain’s Ocean Commitment. How did that transition evolve?

MH: When I arrived at Blancpain I wasn’t fully aware of its history and its deep connection with the ocean through the Fifty Fathoms watch. It was only when I met Mr Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain CEO at the time of the creation of the Fifty Fathoms, that I realised that both he and the watch were diving pioneers. When I first started properly diving, dive computers were just starting to appear on the market, but in the 1950s, it was obviously very different. That was fascinating to me, the story behind the Fifty Fathoms, how it came to be – it came from a place of pure diver’s need.

At the beginning, I was very careful. At the time, Blancpain’s focus was mainly classic watches. I knew my love for the ocean, but I needed to see what our clients thought before we reembraced the brand’s ocean heritage fully. We did a small series in 2003 for the Fifty Fathoms’ 50th anniversary. There was huge hype! I can be a little stubborn though, and I felt we needed another movement for the watch, a brand new calibre featuring Blancpain’s latest innovations. That took us four years to develop, with work finishing in 2007. I simply didn’t want to take a shortcut.

During the same period, my passion for underwater photography was developing. I was diving lots and personally saw a huge change in the ocean environment. Reefs beset by shark finning where after two or three years, there was nothing left. Those sorts of interactions are what inspired me to do something. Photography seemed like the most powerful tool at our disposal. At the time, the internet wasn’t what it is today and most dive magazines weren’t too high a quality, so together with editor Dietmar Fuchs we started connecting with photographers such as Ernie Brooks and Mark Strickland to create something of real quality that effectively connected the beauty of the ocean to people – images that made them go ‘wow’. By the time the new Fifty Fathoms was ready in 2007, our relationship with those photographers and the books we were publishing had already begun. Our commitment to the ocean – our Ocean Commitment – had started.

Grey reef shark, by Mr Marc Hayek
Shark and groupers, by Mr Marc Hayek

OM: Blancpain’s Ocean Commitment has so far backed 19 expeditions, helped to create 11 MPAs and played a role in protecting 1.2% of the world’s ocean – more than 4 million km2 of ocean. How proud are you of those figures?

MH: Very proud. And a little surprised, to be truthful. My exposure to the underwater world, and to trying to capture and share its beauty as a photographer, led me to want to give something back to the ocean, especially in research. In the 1950s we were still discovering the world, but today it is about preservation. Yes, there is still plenty to discover underwater, but the preservation for future generations is now the priority. That’s where I saw the new focus of the Fifty Fathoms: to highlight these challenges and support important ocean conservation work.

As soon as I met with explorer Enric Sala to discuss supporting the National Geographic Pristine Seas expeditions project as a founding partner, I knew we had to be a part of it. It proved to be a special – and very effective – project. The figures you quote come largely from the success of those expeditions.

The success of the Pristine Seas expeditions wasn’t foreseen though. It didn’t come off the back of deciding that we had to contribute a certain amount to conservation or protect a certain percentage of the planet, we simply offered support to something we felt was important. I feel it worked because it took a positive approach: show the beauty and importance of the ocean to decision-makers and they’ll use their power to protect. And, of course, showcasing the ocean as a long-term economic provider – something around which business models and livelihoods can be built – and you have a winning formula. Beauty and opportunity, they can be part of the same philosophy. I would love to do more in that sphere, to be a part of a Pristine Seas II.

OM: You’re a big believer in ocean positivity then?

MH: Yes, absolutely. I react much more to “this is something to save” than “this is something you are not allowed to do”, as I think most people do. In terms of presenting positive ocean messages, photography is key – and it certainly played an important role in the Pristine Seas mission. Connecting through beautiful imagery is impactful and effective. Yes, people have to acknowledge we have a problem too, but most people react more to positive stimulus than negative. I do, for sure.

I was travelling a lot in Asia when the Pristine Seas partnership was running – a place I also like to dive. Some reefs I had visited just a couple of years before and been surrounded by numerous sharks, many different species, they were now devoid of life, dead. I couldn’t believe it. At the same time I recognised reality – people were shark fishing to feed their families. If I had a choice between fishing for sharks and feeding my son or not fishing for sharks and my son going hungry, I would fish – my son comes first. So the question really was about connecting the world with these issues, so that alternatives could be created. The most powerful way to connect, in my opinion, is through imagery. Show the beauty of the sharks and their ecosystem, and show that money can be made through dive tourism, rather than telling locals they can’t fish anymore.

OM: Blancpain is the founding supporter of the World Ocean Summit. How impactful has the event been since its inception? And, with a focus on the ocean like never before, what role can it play in the years ahead?

MH: For me, I prefer to be underwater than around meeting room tables – in a wetsuit rather than a work suit. But on a commercial and political level, it is very important, which I recognise. These events are meaningful and impactful. Personally, I believe that real change – climactically, and not just for the ocean – will only come if each individual becomes aware of the issues we’re facing and does their part, it won’t all come through political change. But we do need rules and we do need proper leadership in creating protected areas and for that the World Ocean Summit is very important – it’s a platform that reaches decision-makers and governments, much like Pristine Seas did. Sadly, it’s something that will likely continue to play an important role for years to come, simply because of the timeframe for change and the scale of the problems facing the ocean. Some people still deny what’s going on of course, but those voices are being powerfully drowned out over time. That’s the role of politics. So for the World Ocean Summit, it’s sad that we need it, but thank god if became politically popular. It has an important role to play in our future.

Mr Marc Hayek taking a photograph of barracuda
Photography by Mr Marc Hayek

OM: How do you deal with the scale of those problems personally?

MH: The problem of course is that these issues are multi-dimensional and interlinked, that’s the tough bit. I’ve been going to the Maldives since 1992. I’ve seen some fantastic conservation results on local reefs in the last few years regarding marine life and a return to health of fish stocks. And at local sites in France, I have also seen quick recoveries off the back of concerted local action. But that’s no good if ocean temperatures continue to rise, bleaching the coral and killing the reefs. That connection is important for people to recognise, and today it’s hard to ignore. I am an ocean guy, so I see it first-hand, but people who aren’t ocean-goers need to know that their behaviours affect the ocean – even if they don’t interact with it directly.

I have a ten-year-old son, a passionate diver who just completed his Open Water certificate. That’s been hugely impactful for me in terms of what we’re doing to the world – and what we’re leaving behind. It’s not about just breathing, it’s about having a world that’s worth living in. Having my son changed me for the better, and on a personal level it has really brought a focus to these things. For my generation we didn’t realise the problems that lay ahead of us. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss our role in them and our role in making important changes – that’s our responsibility. You have the right to learn, you don’t have the right to ignore. As a company, we recognise the importance of giving and donating, but it’s even more important to set an example and lead the way in non-financial ways – our problems won’t disappear with money.

OM: Laurent Ballesta and his team has just completed the Gombessa V mission in the Mediterranean, supported by Blancpain. What impact do you feel the Gombessa missions have had?

MH: All the missions have surprised me. As a diver, I love them, of course, each of them providing different kinds of intrigue. The biological side of the missions – the animal behaviour especially – has been fascinating. Gombessa II and IV, in French Polynesia, was breathtaking, full of adrenaline with hundreds of sharks, but also beautiful. I was lucky enough to be there – wow!

Gombessa V, a hugely technical endeavour, was impressive for different reasons. Biology still played an important role, with the bringing back of deep sea samples for testing. I think that variety is what makes Gombessa so interesting – there’s that element of surprise, showcasing a different part of the ocean each time. Compare that to something like Pristine Seas, which was much more formulaic in its approach – research, documentation, photos, policies. Laurent mixes it up each time. And the challenge each time is how you effectively communicate it – that was especially challenging for Gombessa V. It makes it hugely interesting. This adventure and exploration side of the Gombessa missions is a great component of our Ocean Commitment programme.

Grouper, by Mr Marc Hayek
Mr Marc Hayek underwater during Gombessa IV in Fakarava Atoll

OM: Mission V saw Laurent and three other divers harness saturation and rebreather diving to explore the deep Med like never before. How impactful was their decision to focus on the Mediterranean, rather than more ‘glamorous’ remote locations? And what message are they hoping to convey by having done so?

MH: In terms of the logistics for such a challenging and technical mission, it ultimately wasn’t feasible to go further afield – the support barge, the surrounding infrastructure, and so on. Remote locations were not on the menu. But also, we felt it was a great opportunity to show the world – or even just the people who live around the Mediterranean – what we have on our doorsteps. It’s often what is right in front of us that gets overlooked. The Mediterranean’s reputation also made it an interesting location – both as a popular holiday destination and also somewhere that has been overexploited. So the question was, what’s deeper? What can we find if we go deeper for longer? What is the Mediterranean hiding?

Finding species at depth, that have been lost in the shallows, offers hope. That is so important. Also, being able to show people – millions of people who engage with the Mediterranean regularly – what’s in there, just a short distance offshore and in less than 100m of water, that allows them to connect. It makes it recognisable as an ecosystem, rather than simply a beach with waves. There is wonder out there – and some of the photos that Laurent has brought back of species in the deep. Wow. Being able to stay at depth for four hours rather than 20 minutes, the opportunity that provided him as a biologist and a photographer, you can certainly see the results.

OM: Along with Laurent, freediver Gianluca Genoni is another individual who has been pushing ocean limits with the support of Blancpain, breaking numerous depth and static breath-hold records. How important are stories of human endeavour in the context of connecting people with the ocean, our relationship with it and the importance of it?

MH: Hugely important. Gianluca is an exceptional person. I connected with the ocean through freediving as a child, and there is something pure and ancient about it. We have been doing that much longer than we have scuba diving. People have always been curious about the ocean and wanted to explore it, we’re just not ideally designed to do it! That pursuit of wanting to explore somewhere we’re not designed to go – much like Everest – is a mental and physical challenge. Strangely, that challenge brings with it a sense of inner peace. What Gianluca has achieved, the many records he has broken, is nothing short of incredible. The human endeavour factor is a great engagement tool and hugely powerful in connecting people with the ocean.

OM: Personally, as a diver, you will have experienced both the wonder and plight of the ocean. Are there any moments that had a particularly profound impact on you?

MH: Coral bleaching is especially difficult to encounter. On a recent trip to the Maldives – a place I have been visiting for decades – we dived on a reef that had been bleached to destruction. All the coral was gone, dead. It was the most heartbreaking thing I have seen underwater. The extent of the devastation brought me to tears. I could not believe what I was seeing.

In terms of wonder, and on a more positive note, my first encounter with a whale shark changed me a lot. And not just the sheer size if it. Whale sharks have something inside of them that changes you. It was an incredible encounter. They are enormous creatures, but with such softness. What a magical place the ocean is.

OM: Finally, in as few words as possible, please finish this sentence: The ocean to me is…

MH: Passion.

Penultimate image by Mark Strickland

The Blancpain-supported Gombessa II and IV missions in French Polynesia are the subject of a striking 16-page article (and cover story), ‘The hunt’, in Issue 11 of Oceanographic, available now worldwide.

Photographs by Marc Hayek