Diving in Polynesia with the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa: It’s Designed for Long-Duration Deep Dives, So That’s What We Did!
Diving has changed tremendously over the past three decades, but technology has always kept pace or even caused the change. Technical Diving generally encompasses diving deep for relatively long durations, and that’s what the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa is designed for.
I was one of the fortunate few to be the first to dive the new Tech Gombessa: spending 1 hour and 25 minutes underwater with the latest rebreather diving technology.
We were in Rangiroa in French Polynesia, an atoll approximately 250 kilometers north of Tahiti. While we were still tired from the unaccustomed heat and the more than 20-hour journey, after a breathtaking sunset, we were standing under palm trees holding misted glasses of cool wine in our hands so in good spirits for Blancpain’s presentation of their extraordinary new dive watch.
Over the last few decades, every ten years or so, Blancpain has organized events for a few diving watch journalists and even fewer sport divers so that they can experience their special dive watches, which are usually genuine milestones of the highest watchmaking art. I have been lucky to have been present at all three of these “Dive Experiences”, and I am particularly pleased this time because I was able to handle the prototype of Blancpain’s new extreme diving watch for professional divers.
Unfortunately, Marc Hayek was unable to attend due to illness, but he spoke to us via live a link from Switzerland. Blancpain’s communications department. Blancpain explained the project as, “Drawing on the invaluable legacy of the 1953 Fifty Fathoms and, above all, on his own experience, Marc A. Hayek, together with diver, underwater photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta, set out to develop a new mechanical timepiece to meet the needs of all extreme divers.
The project was initially undertaken with the members of the “Gombessa” expeditions, whose research work involves long deep dives. Supported by Blancpain, these deep-sea adventurers joined forces in the Tamataroa mission that lasted several years. This was a project designed to study the behavior of the great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) in French Polynesia and to which Marc A. Hayek and Laurent Ballesta also belong.”
PR-speak par excellence, but no less impressive is Blancpain’s following presentation of the latest diver’s watch in the Fifty Fathoms collection, the “Tech Gombessa,” which – nomen est omen – has completed its diving-specific test phase as part of the Gombessa projects financed by Blancpain.
In 2019 during Gombessa V, the dive exploration of the Mediterranean Sea at depths between 100 and 200 meters, I had managed to get a glimpse at the prototype of this new type of tech diving watch that allows to record long technical dives with “excursions” lasting up to three hours.
Now I had the opportunity to dive the watch myself, and like the Gomessa team with a rebreather and for a relatively long time. This is how it went.
I quickly faced my first problem: How to test an extreme diving watch in the warm waters of Tahiti? In a T-shirt or thin Lycra suit? That’s not my style: testing should be as close as possible to the usual conditions encountered by extreme divers: so I took my cold water dry suit with me to the tropics, as well as my full face mask for use with open gear, plus the equipment for diving an Inspiration rebreather at greater depths where hammerhead sharks hang out.
Outfitted like this I was unique in Polynesia, but I was probably also the only one who didn’t sweat on land and didn’t shiver underwater in the depths – and the only one for whom the wristband of the new tech watch didn’t fit, . . . because it was too short!
But no problem, Ballesta and team all dive dry with voluminous dry glove systems and there is a wristband extension for the Tech Gombessa. So my doing a real diving test in full gear was no problem.
Well at least not a big one, because simply lengthening and shortening the strap’s circumference during the dive is close to impossible with a buckle and risks possible loss of the watch. And with a Tech Gombessa price of 28,450 euros Tech Gombessa, losing it underwater would be rather expensive.
The pin buckle seems to be something like the holy grail, even though it is impractical in real-world diving use. Too bad the Gombessa team didn’t come to my rescue on this one.
I also couldn’t – or rather, didn’t want to – make friends with the rubber strap at first. I don’t like rubber on my skin, preferring fine leather (hydrophobic) or cleanly woven nylon – preferably made from recycled fishing nets in the form of a NATO strap, but with a historically correct double-D ring instead of a fiddly buckle.
But, the Pre and Après Dive test on bare skin proved me wrong. The Tech Gombessa is extremely comfortable to wear, despite its 47-millimeter case diameter on my tiny 55-millimeter wrist. The comfortable feeling may also be due to the ultra-light and ultra-high-quality titanium of the case construction.
Blancpain’s communications explains that “Titanium Grade 23 was chosen for the material of the case. This purest titanium in existence, also called Grade 5 ELI (extra low interstitials, with “very low inclusions”), has only recently been used by Blancpain for its collections. It features exceptional strength as well as anti-allergic properties while being remarkably lightweight.
The low weight ensures the high wearing comfort, so that the watch is hardly noticeable on the wrist despite the large diameter of 47 millimeters. This is also assisted by the fact that, for the first time on a Blancpain timepiece, the watch features central horns attached to the inside of the middle section with an integrated bracelet.”
I can only agree with this. With the exception of the integrated bracelet, which actually looks – for a rubber strap – very valuable. But it cannot be easily replaced by a NATO strap. That’s a problem that I’ve already encountered with the X Fathoms.
While I can understand that Blancpain knows that 80% of its clientele are collectors and watch aficionados, with only a few who actually dive with the watch and even fewer making extreme dives in dry suits, it is that latter that helped develop the watch so I can’t overlook the strap issue.
What else? Let’s first consider the usual requirements for a diver’s watch, which include “optimal readability in all light and visibility conditions.” Here, the Tech Gombessa, like all its siblings in the Fifty Fathoms collection, is perfectly equipped. And, in my opinion, it marks the top in terms of legibility among all diving watches, because not only the numerals of the watch are coated with Super-LumiNova, but also the graduations on the dive time ring. And the latter is at least as important for divers.
Two more features elevate the Tech Gombessa above its Fifty Fathom siblings: the Super-LumiNova mass is applied so thickly that it appears three-dimensional, and the coating of the dial in “absolute” black, which is a new creation of the color industry that is supposed to absorb 97 percent of the light so offers the highest contrast to the bold Super-LumiNova.
“In stark contrast, the indexes are made of domed and luminescent block appliques, this time in orange with blue emission. These codes are also found on the hour and minute hands, so that one can distinguish the time indication from the dive time,” Blancpain reports, leading on to the first use of a dive timer used independently of the time indication, in the form of a hand equipped with the same color code of the bezel – so that there is no confusion.
Which brings us to the biggest innovation: the dive timer by means of an additional hand, as well as a bezel with a circular division of three hours of dive time.
This is due to the longer diving times with a rebreather and is therefore the favorite diving equipment of the Gombessa team. This bezel works perfectly with the new fourth hand, the dive time hand, as it takes a total of three hours to complete one rotation. Before diving, you turn the bezel – this is not new – with the diamond over the tip of the hand – in this case, the dive time hand and not, as usual, the minute hand, as on a three-hand watch.
On the Gombessa Tech you can now – quite quickly and safely read off the elapsed dive time. Since the deco times are also correspondingly long during such dives, the new dive time ring also makes sense here.
Even the handling underwater the Gombessa diving experts have considered. Thus, the ring can be easily operated even with thick dry diving gloves. Details that come entirely from practical experience. Diving is done with computers and the mechanical time measurement serves exclusively as a backup.
What I miss
In this case, I am particular – as you can see in the pictures – I always dive with “time” and “depth” as mechanical backup. In an emergency with total electronic failure I can still perform a save return with “Deko on the Fly”, or dive tables at hand. Or in the highest emergency with the old fashioned “90s rule“ only a watch and a depth gauge are needed.
I wish that Blancpain offered the ingenious depth gauge from the X Fathoms in a separate case adapted to the Gombessa Tech design. A “real” diver’s watch only makes sense to me if you use it in combination with a mechanical depth gauge. And wouldn’t this unique combination be the perfect solution for the next limited Tech combo? This time not being distributed online to the fastest buyer but in reference to its origin exclusively to certified tech divers? Sorry, I’m dreaming again.
Let’s start on the negative side: the font of the lettering takes some getting used to, to say the least. In the past, Blancpain had a better hand with other fonts – just take a look at the “Commercial Script” of the Fifty Fathoms.
On the back is the nice oscillating weight behind the rear crystal with its fine “Gombessa Expeditions” logo.
In addition, a revised helium valve, which was indeed necessary in the context of Gombessa V – in contrast to the advertised helium outlets of many wanna-be pro dive watches of other manufacturers.
Also useful, as I know from practical experience is the new spherical glass that “eliminates any visual distortions – well, almost.
I also like the huge “Peli box” in which the watch is delivered. What for? Not for storing the watch, but because the box offers enough space for modern photo/video equipment, which, in the spirit of Laurent Ballesta, encourages many new tech divers to document their adventures with the Fifty Fathoms.
My opinion of the Tech Gombassa
I am not uninfluenced by the genius of Marc Hayek and the diving skills of Laurent Ballesta. Still, for the inventor of the wristwatch (1735), the modern diver’s watch (1953), and countless complications in movement design, Blancpain’s Tech Gombassa is a bit too simple for me. I expected more, and I’m sure there’s more to come for the Tech lineup.
Timing three hours does make sense historically – long dives result from the durability of the carbon dioxide absorber in the rebreather (AP-Inspiration) – which is safety-conscious at three hours. But the Gombessa diversare underwater far longer with their Inspirations rebreathers? So I would have expected six hours rather than three.
Perhaps interchangeable bezels with an adjustable dive time hand run time would have been better? But possibly as difficult to implement as switching from a two-hand watch time display to a single-hand dive time display during the dive – and back.
In any case, I’m curious to see what else is to come from Blancpain which has already patented the additional three-hour dive display.
What excites me about the new Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombassa
As a historically oriented diver rather than a technology-obsessed watch journalist. the it’s a legitimate evolution from Jean-Jacques Fiechter introducing the first diving watch after Jacques-Yves Cousteau invented the regulator, which then led to recreational diving offering depth and decompression, and now Marc A. Hayek introducing the first tech diving watch after Martin Parker successfully introduced the closed rebreather in recreational diving, with ultra-long dive times regardless of depth.
In both cases, it was time for a new diving watch, the Fifty Fathoms in 1953 and in 2023, the Fifty Fathoms Tech. All in all it’s outstandingly successful!
For more information, please visit https://landing.blancpain.com/70-anniversary/act2-tech-gombessa
Quick Facts: Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Act 2 Tech Gombessa
Case: Grade 23 titanium and 18k Sedna gold
Diameter: 43 mm
Thickness: 13.4 mm
Dimensions: Diameter 43 mm, Thickness: 13.4 mm
Movement: Cal. 1315, automatic winding, frequency 4 Hz/28,800 bph, silicon balance spring
Functions: Hours, minutes, date
Power reserve: 120 hours
Strap: Canvas strap with pin buckle
Water resistance: 300 m
Limitation: 50 pieces
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