Into the blue

Words and photographs by Franco Banfi

“It’s difficult to compare the feeling of swimming alongside a whale with any other experience.”

Franco Banfi has been shooting the underwater world for more than 35 years. An award-winning photographer and Isotta ambassador, he has also led countless wildlife photography tours all over the world so that others may share in his passion for life beneath the waves. We head behind the lens to find out more about Franco’s ocean experiences.

OM: When and how did you first connect with the ocean?

FB: One of my most significant early memories was on a trip to the Maldives. Back then, I didn’t understand a huge amount about the ocean and its inhabitants, but I remember photographing coral and colourful fish, eventually some turtles, and being completely intrigued. It was so exciting to be there, everything was beautiful and I took so many pictures that I would share with family and friends for as long as they would put up with. I went back several times but witnessing how the fish populations had started to decline with each trip was tough. I stopped going for a few years, but 10 years ago I returned and I was very surprised to see how nature had started to bounce back. I think there is more concern about reef and ocean conservation these days. I was thrilled to see sharks, whale sharks, mantas, friendly turtles and lot of bright fish.

Franco Banfi Isotta photographer whale
Franco Banfi Isotta photographer blackwater

OM: What came first, a love of photography or diving?
FB: Photography came first. I’ve always been very curious about the world and I love to share that with others. I went into diving because I wanted to take my passion for photography beneath the waves. I started diving in 1981 and after a couple of years, I started to take photographs underwater. I started out diving in the lakes in Switzerland. I would dive all year long, even in the winter with the lakes topped in snow and ice. This was good training for my diving future, as I’ve now experienced the underwater world in Antarctica, the Arctic, Russia and Greenland. The small lake nearest my house was a lot like heading beneath the ice of Antarctica. I would compare it to cave diving. When there is light and good visibility, I love to examine the different ice formations – some can be truly extraordinary.

OM: How does freediving give you more freedom in terms of your underwater photography?
FB: Freediving photography doesn’t give me more freedom necessarily, but it just provides a different way of photographing marine life – it certainly is a more peaceful way to approach animals. For example, I prefer to approach whales while freediving because it’s a more natural interaction with that animal. In some environments, such as lakes or rivers, freediving can be easier.

OM: You’re well-known for your extraordinary photographs of whales – what is it about these creatures that you find so fascinating to photograph and experience?
FB: Once you’ve swum with whales once, you’re hooked. I will never stop diving with these amazing creatures. Once I started, I became addicted. It’s difficult to compare the feeling of swimming alongside a whale with any other experience – the eye contact, the mutual acceptance, the intelligent connection… There’s nothing like it.

Franco Banfi Isotta photographer whales
Franco Banfi Isotta photographer marlin
Franco Banfi Isotta photographer belgua

OM: You visit the waters of Dominica every January – what is special about the marine life there?
FB: I visit Dominica every January because I lead small group to swim and photograph sperm whales. I’ve been going back every year for the past seven years, and I’ve started to get to know individual whales. I think they must recognise me too. Having returned so many times, I now understand so much more about their behaviour and what to expect from various interactions. I like to share this experience with others because it brings me joy to see other people having this same connection.

OM: What has been your most memorable experience while photographing whales?
FB: When you photograph whales is not just about getting a good picture. It’s also the experience of being so close to these giants. I have had many wonderful experiences with whales. Once I jumped into the water with two sperm whales, which then separated so I followed one. I was able to get in front of the whale but then the whale increased her speed. She slowed again so I could swim in front, but then it sped up and I fell behind. The third time I gave up trying to keep up with her. It was like the whale was waiting for me but when she saw me arriving alongside her, she started to swim properly so we could move forward together. If the whales don’t want to stay with you, they simply swim away and there’s no way for you to keep up. But this time was different.

OM: What are your most important rules for photographing marine life?
FB: Don’t cause stress to the animals. Learn as much as you can about their behaviour, approach carefully and read their body language. If you take it slowly and wait for the animals to accept you, you will get a good picture.

Franco Banfi Isotta photographer sea snake

OM: Can you tell us a little about your conservation collaborations?
FB: I work with the International Environment Photographers Association. I provide them with pictures to use in photo exhibitions in order to help raise awareness about the beauty of the underwater world and how we are impacting it.

OM: Is there anywhere in the world still on your bucket list to dive and shoot?
FB: Yes, I would love to visit South Georgia and the northern waters of Russia, but also to go back to certain places like the Galapagos Islands and Cocos.

OM: Why is it important to you to be able to share your experiences via photography?
FB: I think it’s easier to share a message using visuals than any other medium. If you can share a picture of a beautiful coral reef or marine creature it can inspire people to protect it. Also, if you share photos of the damage, such as coral bleaching or plastic pollution, you can make people more aware of what’s happening in the ocean. You have done something good as a photographer. I hope to make people aware of what they will lose if they don’t take care of their environment. I know it may be a small drop in the big ocean, but it’s my contribution.

OM: What gives you hope for the future of the ocean and its inhabitants?
FB: I have a lot of hope, especially when I see different people and organisations taking some really positive action. On the other hand, I’m also frustrated because most people’s highest priority is money. You can easily see how this has been the focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. People have realised that they can live differently, that they can spend more time with family and work from home. Everybody has realised just how important the natural world is to us, how vital it is that we minimise pollution and destruction of natural spaces. But I believe that once the global lockdown is lifted, it will only take a few weeks for everything go back to normal. For nature to be forgotten again.