The latest big animal project from freediving photo-journalist Frederic Buyle reveals the true nature of South Africa's tiger sharks
I ALWAYS LIKED SHARKS. As far as I can remember, when I was a kid, I was forever reading books about them, fascinated by these animals. Even though I'm a Jaws Generation kid, the movie gave me the desire to learn more about sharks. At school, I also remember making presentations about sharks, speaking about the various species and spending time elaborating posters and displays. Memories... My first encounter with a shark happened in Indonesia back in 1988. It was not a 'real one', just a whitetip. The year after, I had the opportunity to see grey reef sharks and a hammerhead in the Maldives. Since then, I have had the privilege of meeting many kinds of sharks in the ocean. Every time I see one, I have the same impression, a mix of respect and fascination. It's always a unique experience. In the past three years, my activities seem to have shifted even more towards shark encounters. This means taking pictures and filming, but I'm also involved in shark-tagging programmes in which I use freediving skills to approach the animals and place the tags. My main photographic project is to focus on freedivers interacting with large sea creatures. Sharks are, naturally, well represented in this series of images. Earlier this year, I was able to swim without a cage with a great white shark. Unfortunately, I could not take the images I had in mind, and the experience left me a little frustrated. So I was determined to do better when I encountered the tiger sharks of Aliwal Shoal in South Africa. The models in my tiger shark series of pictures are world-class athletes Pierre Frolla and William Winram. Both men are amazing freedivers when it comes to performances, but what distinguishes them from many other talented exponents is their love for the ocean and its creatures. Both became spearfishers in childhood, which gave them the ability to approach animals without disturbing them, and involved countless hours spent in the water observing marine life. I have known Pierre since 1996, when we met during the first freediving world championship. We have travelled together many times to compete, but what we enjoy most is just spending time in the water with marine creatures. We have been half a dozen times to New Caledonia, where Pierre's brother lives. Shark encounters occur every day in these waters, and these repeated experiences have helped us learn to understand them better. I met William on a freediving competition a couple of years ago. This March he accompanied me to help on a shark-tagging campaign at Malpelo Island, Colombia. This year we were blessed by the presence of large schools of hammerheads and numerous groups of Galapagos sharks. So before arriving in Aliwal to freedive with the tigers, we all knew how we would behave with the sharks. For a photographer, this is priceless - it means I can focus 100% on the pictures, I don't have to tell the divers what to do because I know they are relaxed, and I feel totally safe with the sharks because we cover each others' backs all the time. We spent two weeks with the Blue Wilderness crew, and three or four hours a day with the tigers. Such a long time with these sharks convinced us of their benign nature. We cannot forget that these are wild animals and apex predators, but they never displayed any sign of aggression towards us. I had had the same feeling with the great white shark earlier in the year. The tigers evaluate you. They observe you for long minutes. Day after day we could see that each one had a specific behaviour pattern. Some were more playful, others shy or curious. One, a large female named Mathilda, has a taste for cameras. In two years, she has eaten three . The last was a full set-up, DSLR plus flashes! Several time I had to push her away, and I once had to remove my arm and camera from her mouth. But she never tried to bite.
DURING THE STAY, we invited our friend Helen Garner to join us. Helen is the South African freediving champion, but she had a huge fear of sharks. She described her first minutes in the water surrounded by 50 blacktips and five tiger sharks as stressful, but she quickly relaxed and, in the end, we had to drag her out of the water! She is now hooked, and will certainly become a motivated shark protector. I hope these images help to show that sharks have more to lose because of human behaviour than we have to fear from them. Having humans in the frame is, I think, the best way to pass on the message. We all try to relate things to a human dimension. I'll let William end this little piece about these fascinating animals: 'Once in the water, I was so completely absorbed in my interactions with these sharks that time seemed immaterial; hours passed immersed in the company of these amazing beings. 'Nose to nose, face to face, swimming with, around and under them, I am forever changed in my perception and understanding of sharks, particularly the tiger sharks. They are gentle and curious and command respect, not fear.'
As the three freedivers got to know the tiger sharks at Aliwal Shoal,they found them amenable and were able to note their various characteristics.
DID YOU KNOW THAT TIGER SHARKS... * Have teeth shaped like those found on a circular saw? * Can travel thousands of miles between continents? * Can have between 10 and 82 pups? * Can take up to 18 years to reach maturity? * Require bays or estuaries as nursery areas?