Capturing connection

Words and photographs by Fred Buyle

“They really try to understand you – the way they look at you, the way they click at you – they really seem to want to connect.”

In 2004, Fred Buyle moved from a celebrated career in competitive freediving to underwater photography. He has since gone on to collaborate with a number of marine conservation organisations, using his freediving expertise to help with field work, and has been published in the likes of National Geographic, The New York Times and The Telegraph. Nine years ago, together with Fabrice Schnöller, he initiated the Darewin Project, which aims to develop tools to study the language of cetaceans. In Issue 10, his photography illustrates the story of one of their more recent expeditions.

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

Fred Buyle (FB): When I was a little kid my parents always had a sailboat, so I was always sailing with them. They didn’t dive, but I always wanted to go underwater. That’s something that always attracted me. When I was seven or eight I could start snorkelling and exploring and that’s how the whole thing started.

OM: Why did you move from a career in freediving to one in photography?

FB: I stopped competitive freediving in 2004 simply because I’d done nine years of being a professional athlete. Back in the day we were lucky, I had sponsorship. I didn’t make a fortune but could make my living just by competing and with a few sponsors. Freediving is a very young sport. At that age I was building a personality and trying to understand how I really function. I think it was a good way to meet people – even though we were competitors we were all friends. Sometimes we would spend three months training together for a competition, we would be helping each other and then on the day we were competitors. It was a nice sport for that. But it’s a lot of work. Every year you know you’re going to train for nine months for one dive. At some point you’ve done it and it’s enough.

OM: Is freediving a key element of your work?

FB: Freediving is simply the most natural way to go underwater. I think you better understand the whole ecosystem when you freedive because you become a part of that environment, more so than when scuba or rebreather diving. You make less noise; you can cover more distance and you can spend more time in the water. Your dives are shorter, but you can spend all day in the water, covering a much wider area so I think it’s a very good way to understand how a particular area or ecosystem works. The animals are less afraid of you so it’s much easier to get close to them. Usually they get curious and they come to you to examine you. When you’re freediving, you can really hear that the ocean is not a silent world, far from it, which is another sensory experience. Also, I think freediving makes sense for me because it uses less resources – every scuba dive you fill a tank it uses 1.5kw of energy. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s a lot.

OM: Is it important to you that your work aids conservation in some way?

FB: Of course! It evolved towards that over the years. I was always interested in conservation, but it was a little later, after I stopped freediving competitively and really started focusing on the underwater photography that I moved into that world. In fact, I started photography just two years before I stopped competing in freediving and I never thought it would be a new career. When you start taking pictures you start looking for stories and marine scientists always have interesting stories. That’s how I got involved.

In 2005 I started taking pictures for a team of scientists in Colombia for the Malpelo Foundation. We were tagging hammerhead sharks to see the movement of the species in the Eastern Pacific and their movement between Malpelo, Galapagos and Cocos Island. The data from that study helped that site get assigned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. I started to become more aware of the different problems the marine environment faces so I became more interested in these issues. I have been working in this field for 15 years now, and I can see how the new generation of marine biologists communicate more with each other and the general public. The new generation, they share everything and work together. It’s a good sign.

Fred Buyle freediving underwater photography manta rays
Fred Buyle freediving underwater photography hvaldimir

OM: What drew you to Fabrice Schnöller?

FB: I met Fabrice on Reunion Island nearly ten years ago now and I really liked his approach to his work. He’s an engineer and he has that engineering way of looking at things – I think it’s a very good approach for whale communication. He doesn’t seem to have the barriers that marine biologists have, because they are often a lot more focused on protocols and have specific ideas about how things should be done. So, I started to help him go a bit further with his freediving, which he picked up very quickly, and off we went. I think it’s important nowadays to try to cross disciplines – gathering all the various components together, from scientific data to underwater imagery, is a big plus for everyone. The idea with Darewin is that everything is open source, so people can use the recordings for their own research if they want. I think that’s the key. I don’t understand why a lot of scientific papers are not available to the public – I find it totally crazy that often you need to spend money to access and article online. Everything should be open source.

OM: What is your experience of blending the scientific side of your work with Darewin with the emotional side?

FB: Every time you have a true interaction with a marine animal, when both the human and the animal are willing to meet, you feel those two elements collide. Often, when we go into the water it’s not necessarily a true encounter – we see fish or a whale just passing by, but when you have an encounter when both parties want to share a moment and try to understand each other, it goes to another level. But it takes time. With Darewin, in ten years we’ve spent around 400 days at sea getting in the water with these animals and in only 2% of that time we’ve had a true encounter. It’s a long process but it’s very rewarding when it happens. Fabrice works with a pod of dolphins in the Reunion Islands, some of which he can recognise year after year, and they seem to recognise him too. Even with sharks it’s possible to have that kind of experience. If you return to the same dive site over the years, you’re likely to bump into the same sharks. Animals in the same species do share certain behaviours, but each individual will also have its own preferences, moods and behaviours. One day a shark who is usually playful and interactive simply won’t be. They’re like us, they’re changeable. Some animals will be curious, some won’t.

There was an occasion when I was at home in the Azores when a group of us were freediving. We bumped into a group of around 25 sperm whales and we saw a mother give birth. That was very very special. My first reaction was to be very careful because you would think that when a mother gives birth she and the other whales would be very protective. But we were accepted straight away by the group. The mother was helping the little guy to swim and breath and after 15 minutes she was pushing it to all the other sperm whales. Then she pushed it towards me, literally pushed the calf near me. It was a really humbling experience – she understood that we were not a threat and that we were just there to observe. It was a very powerful moment.

OM: What have you been working on recently with Fabrice?

FB: The latest expedition we did was in Norway. We came across the famous Beluga whale, Hvaldimir. Over the course of two or three weeks we spent several days in the water with him – he’s a very interesting animal. It’s clear that he’s been trained by humans, but he’s also able to function in nature. It’s a shame because he doesn’t have any fellow belugas to interact with and they are highly social animals. That’s why he seeks human contact. It’s a common thing with certain marine animals who find themselves on their own, they look for human contact. It’s a sad story – it shows how we always end up corrupting things. Hvaldimir is a very good candidate for Darewin, to test sounds, to send him sounds and see how he reacts, and record his responses. The idea behind Darewin is to match the behaviour and sound, so it’s a big plus to be able to film an animal in the water while recording them.

The first time we got in the water with him he was quite shy – he hung around on the edge of our vision. But after around 10 minutes he came a little closer and started to interact. He was trying to touch us all the time and was very playful. Every time we left it was very difficult, because you could see he didn’t want us to leave. He kept moving between us and the boat. Every time we left it was difficult for him and for us. He’s healthy, he’s feeding, which is good. But it was a very different experience from what we had had with other animals.

Fred Buyle freediving underwater photography sharks
Fred Buyle freediving underwater photography Fabrice
Fred Buyle freediving underwater photography whale sharks

OM: How do you feel when you have a true encounter with a marine animal?

FB: When you interact with certain whales and dolphins you can see that they are extremely clever animals. They really try to understand you – the way they look at you, the way they click at you – they really seem to want to connect. Both their language and their social structure are very complex. I would say they’re smarter than we are because they’ve been around for 60 million years, so they have all that knowledge and experience that has been passed down through the generations. Also, they’ve been able to remain at the top of the ocean food chain without destroying it and manage the resources well. So just for that, they are probably a lot more intelligent than we are. But there is a feeling of understanding – it’s like when you go to a country where you don’t speak the language, you generally manage to get by with body language. We show each other that we’re not a threat, that we just want to hang out, nothing more, nothing less. You have to show respect.

OM: What is the most important story you’ve told with your photography?

FB: I don’t know if there is just one that really stands out. But I really like to show the field work of the scientists and the impact of their work. For example, with the hammerhead sharks in Malpelo we found that the pregnant females were going into the mangroves, so then with that knowledge those areas could be protected. It’s practical knowledge that’s turned into conservation measures. I think that really speaks to people because they can really understand why marine science is so important. People need to be able to connect with the work, the animals and the scientists. It’s very meaningful for me.

OM: The way you capture the underwater world is very ethereal, is that style purposeful?

FB: In fact it simply happens. I bought my first underwater camera in 2002, two years before I stopped my career as a professional freediver and the idea was just to take pictures of friends and the competitions, just to get some memories. So I started taking pictures during freediving competitions and very quickly I started to sell them. I think it’s because I was taking pictures with a freediving approach – when you freedive you see the big picture. You have a much wider field of vision than a scuba diver. As a freediver you like to feel that you’re part of that gigantic ocean and connected with everything in your field of vision. I think I started to create that feeling in my pictures but it just came naturally. I wanted to show people what we were seeing down there and how we were seeing it. That’s why, from the beginning, I only use natural light – I’ve never used a flash or lights. I wanted people to experience what we were experiencing when we were freediving and I kept that aesthetic. There are so many amazing photographers so you need to find a niche, but I didn’t decide how it should be. I just think like a freediver with a camera.

OM: What will you be working on next?

FB: I’m working on a shark documentary for a French TV channel. We will follow several sharks through their ocean migrations to tell their story. We have a big team and we’re going to shoot for two years all around the world. I’m a wildlife and scientific consultant and cameraman on that. We’ve finished writing the scripts and we leave in a month, so it should be a super interesting project.

See more of Fred’s work and read our feature about the Darewin Project in Issue 10 of Oceanographic Magazine. In the meantime, you can enjoy an excerpt from Interpreting whalesong – just click here.


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