Imagine if the one thing you cannot think about is the exact thing that your life, literally, depended on. That's precisely the relationship that veteran freediver Fred Buyle has with time and breath during his decade-long pursuit of underwater world records.
Born in Belgium, Buyle began diving at the age of four- for him, being underwater is as natural as breathing. But not breathing was what he had to refine and perfect when he immersed himself in the sport professionally at the age of 20. "That's when I decided to do competition and set records."
And that's exactly what he did. Aside from three world records in the variable-weight and the constant-weight freediving categories, Buyle became the eighth person to reach 100-metres underwater in a single breath in 1999.
Though he's been freediving from a young age, pivoting to a professional level was not without its physical and mental challenges. "Like any other athlete, it requires a lot of practice. I was training; a lot of running, time at the gym, six hours a day."
Conditioning the mind to stay calm and focused is a significant contributor to underwater success. For Buyle, there are two folds to the process that, over time, allow a freediver to thrive in the deep abyss. "First, you dive into yourself; you make yourself calm and relaxed. And then you need to understand the environment."
Buyle likens the experience to entering a meditative state. "You have to be inside yourself to understand your body. But you also have to totally open yourself up to the surroundings- you have to be able to get inside and outside to understand both sides."
Some of the mental tools he uses to get into the zone include visualising the dives themselves. "It's one of the things you do during training– doing the dive again and again in your head, so it's like you've done it already."
Visualising the experience is just one aspect. A freediver’s success depends on their ability not to breathe for as long as possible while disconnecting from time. "Time is a very special concept when we hold our breath. We cannot think about time; when you start to think about time, you won't be good.
As much as it was crucial to not think about time, precision is a matter of life and death for freedivers. "To know the time passing is important, and I also need to know the relapse time between two dives."
Buyle, an ambassador of Swiss watch brand Ulysse Nardin, relies on another visualisation technique that's helped him thrive since childhood to deal with this. "I've always had mechanical watches with hands to help visualise time. In my mind, I'm able to see the time passing; to see the hands of a mechanical watch helps me understand how long I've been in the water."
The sport pushes both an athlete's physical and mental limits, but Buyle says it's never about making big leaps. "You don't have the feeling of pushing the limit that much because you do things step by step. And you only take the next step when you're totally ready. You don't drive down to 200 metres in one day.," he says. "I never felt I was pushing my limit because I knew it was always within reach."
While Buyle spent the bulk of his efforts refining his physical and mental fitness, other aspects of freediving came much more naturally to him. "When you freedive, you can approach the animals more easily than if you were scuba diving where there are lots of bubbles and noises that keep the animals away.”
Raised in a family of professional photographers, Buyle began bringing a camera on dives in 2002 to capture other divers and the underwater world. Towards the end of his professional career, magazines started picking up his photos, and he made the natural transition into a new career.
Though his 'office' remained much the same, his work became vastly different, and it took some getting used to. "It was difficult to go from a life where you train six to eight hours a day to not having to train at all."
The medication and visualisation techniques that helped him reach his peak continue to be valuable today. It's so ingrained that he can get immediately into the right headspace with little mental prep work when he dives.
At 50 and living in the Portuguese archipelago Azores, there are plenty of opportunities for interaction with the ocean. He’s been working with marine biologists since 2005 to tag and track sea life like sharks and whales.
The work has allowed him to interact with wildlife in ways that few humans have ever experienced, like witnessing a birth together with a pod of 30 sperm whales off the coast of Portugal eight years ago.
“The mother brought the baby to the surface and then showed it to the pod. The mothers are very productive; but she pushed the newborn towards me,” It remains one of his most rewarding experiences. It is experiences like this that inspire him to take part in conservation efforts and research. He works with Azores University to track sharks using non-invasive pop-up satellite tags, a project supported by a grant from Ulysse Nardin.
Along the way, he’s captured some stunning underwater images. He witnessed first-hand how a pause in tourism and fishing during Covid has allowed reefs to thrive again and hopes that the glimpses of the underwater world he shares with the world will be the beginning of more aggressive conservation efforts.
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