The free world of Fred Buyle
“LAST TIME WE WERE IN GUADALUPE, a lot of people told us that we would get eaten by the white sharks,” says freediver Fred Buyle. “They said they were totally different there, more aggressive because of the good visibility, so the first time we went in with them we were very careful.
“But we noticed quickly that they behaved exactly the same as the ones we had dived with in South Africa.
“The funny thing is that the most difficult thing was to get the shark close enough. When they see you look at them and you swim towards them and try to interact, it’s a totally different game. They’re a bit shy, and even the giant great white becomes shy if you try to get close to him to take pictures.
“It sounds weird, but everyone in the team experienced that. We had a few cameramen who were a bit scared of getting in without a cage, but after a few hours they were complaining that the sharks were not close enough!”
Freedivers can do things scuba-divers can’t, but photographs of interactions in a natural setting with sharks or whales are just part of Fred Buyle’s new book of his work, [apnea].
It seems that his passion for capturing images is in his genes.
GREAT-GRANDFATHER FERDINAND BUYLE was a 19th-century art collector and photography pioneer, court photographer to the Belgian royal family. Ferdinand’s son Robert Buyle became a well-known painter, and his son in turn was a successful fashion and advertising photographer in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Apparently growing bored, he stopped taking pictures four years before the birth of his own son Frederic in 1972, and barely picked up a camera again. “But I have always been surrounded by photography and paintings, and that’s what gave me the eye, I think,” says Fred. “The technical part I got later by actually taking pictures.”
When he was a teenager, his little childhood camera was replaced by the professional-quality units his father had kept.
Fred started freediving at 10; by 19 he was teaching the sport. Between 1995 and 2000, based in the south of France, he set four world records in the variable- and constant-weight disciplines.
He embarked on underwater photography only in 2002, to take souvenir shots of freediving friends.
“The first time I used a camera was in a competition in Hawaii, and I sold a couple of the pictures,” he says. “It was funny, I’d never intended to take pictures as a job.” But that’s what underwater photography soon became.
Fred had become a PADI diving instructor at 18, but he rarely uses scuba now; certainly
not to take underwater photographs.
The last time was five years ago off the eastern Pacific island of Malpelo, where he worked for four years. “For me it’s the best dive spot in the world. I had to put a tag on a ferox (smalltooth sand tiger) shark at 80 or 90m, and there was no way to do that while freediving.”
Does using only breath-hold constrain his photography “I never face a limit by freediving, because I don’t do things where I could reach a limit,” says Fred.
“I’m not doing deep macro photography, for example – enough people are doing that. It doesn’t fit with freediving. I have never wished I could stay two minutes more to get an animal.
“In fact with freediving photography the animals are coming quite quickly, but you see everything from above first, so you know how it’s going to work. Usually it’s a really short dive – I rarely push a dive when I’m taking pictures.”
To get photos down to 30m, Fred knows he can comfortably dive for four to five minutes. Most of his pictures are taken no deeper than 25m, however, on dives lasting 1.5 to 2.5 minutes. “So it’s nothing extraordinary – anybody with a bit of training can do that,” he says.
The deepest picture in the [apnea] book was one of William Winram under the arch in the Blue Hole at Dahab on a constant-weight, no-fins freedive.
“I went down a little before him and stopped at 60m to take the picture, but that’s extreme.”
A couple of other shots were taken in 30-40m, but whatever the depth, Fred restricts himself to using available light.
“There’s only one picture where I had a cameraman 5m behind me with some light, of Pierre Frolla on a submarine in 20m of water in the harbour at Monaco.
“You can do a lot with natural light,” Fred assures me, “and I never, ever manipulate pictures. That’s something I commit to 100%, because it’s too easy.
“I might reframe an image, but I would never move, change or erase anything – no way.”
He uses a Canon 5D Mk 2 camera with 16-35mm and 15mm fisheye lenses.
“And I’m on full manual all the time, because the production is not consistent enough if you use priority modes when you shoot available light.
“Move the angle of the lens by a couple of degrees and it changes the light a lot, so it was frustrating when I was using aperture or speed priority – manual works much better.
“I spend 150 days of the year in the water, so I know the right settings for the conditions.”
[apnea] collects 100 of Fred’s favourite underwater pictures in an attractive panoramic format. “My editor Isabelle Blumet was really helpful. You think a picture’s the best, then realise that you just think it’s good because it was a special moment for you or your friends. You need to have someone with an outside perspective on your work.
“Still, it was stressful for her and for me. We did a lot of the work using Skype and sometimes we would just be shouting at each other and she would hang up! But it brought the best out of the project.”
TO STAVE OFF ANY THREAT of the boredom that obviously affected his father, Fred Buyle has two main strings to his diving bow besides underwater photography: freediving instruction and marine conservation – primarily shark-tagging. “I go from one project to another between the three, so I’m never bored,” he says.
“Freediving for me was never a goal in itself, even in the early years. I’ve always loved it but it’s always been a tool to do stuff.
“Competitive freediving was great, I met a lot of great people and it helped me to realise many things about how I functioned and what I could do, but I knew it was just a transition.”
With Will Winram he runs Ocean Encounters, taking freedivers at all levels to exotic locations for exciting animal encounters, and to train.
“I’m seeing more and more people who want to freedive, especially among the new generation of scuba-divers,” he says. “They want an activity with a bit of sport and a physical component, and they find scuba maybe a bit too contemplative.”
Fred and Will were about to leave for Mexico with nine freedivers of all levels on an expedition typical of the experiences they offer, as reflected in [apnea]. “We’ve been doing trips like this with any kind of shark, tiger and even white sharks in South Africa, and this time we’re doing it on Guadalupe, but it’s not a stunt,” says Fred.
“We don’t want to say that sharks are nice little pets that we have to love, because they’re wild animals, but we have to show that anyone can swim with them if you do it in the proper way.”
In fact Fred and Will make this sort of thing look a little too easy.
“We’ve had Discovery and Nat Geo turn down high-quality HD footage of ours because it was spectacular but not dramatic enough – and I’m not getting into creating drama,” says Fred. “We just do what we want to do, and if they don’t like it, that’s that, no problem.”
Surely there must have been a few hairy moments “To be 100% honest, the only time I’ve had any stress with sharks was on a spearfishing thing in New Caledonia years ago, where you have 25 grey reef sharks snapping around you because they want the fish – but that’s a special situation.
“Taking pictures or taking people with sharks, we’ve never had any stress.”
From Guadalupe, Fred heads for Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
As a shark-tag specialist he was asked to set up a tagging programme after five surfers were bitten by bull and possibly tiger sharks last year.
“We’ll try to find them with the help of local freedivers and spearfishers, and I’m going to put tags in and teach them to tag sharks and use the equipment.
“A guy there has invented an acoustic receiver that will take information directly from the shark to land, live.
We want to test that equipment, because in places like Reunion or South Africa, where problems arise with sharks in a particular bay, it may be possible to tag them, see when exactly they are present and introduce a real-time alert system.”
And after Reunion, we look forward to seeing Fred Buyle, his spectacular footage and his books at the London International Dive Show (LIDS 2012).
For more on Fred-led expeditions, visit oceanencounters.net or nektos.net
Fred Buyle’s first book of freediving photos is divided into three parts: competitive freediving, diving with large marine animals, and freediving as a natural means of exploration. The 112pp hardback contains 100 images. Published by Editions Catapac in France (ISBN 2909524221), it costs 24.50 euros.
Go to www. catapac.com/index.php page=apnea_en