Fred Buyle, Underwater Cowboy

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Ulysse Nardin has just offered a grant to the Azores University’s marine research centre to acquire ten pop-up biologging sensors to tag blue sharks in the Atlantic and document our knowledge of this endangered species. Swimming with blue sharks, his DIVER 44mm on the wrist, Fred Buyle tags marine animals in their natural environment using non-invasive techniques. Buyle is using his underwater photography and freediving skills to change the way we see the seas.

Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Many marine species are difficult to study because components of their lifecycles occur solely or partially outside of the observable realm of researchers. Advances in biologging tags have begun to give us glimpses into these unobservable states. However, many of these tags require rigid attachment to animals, which normally requires catching and restraining the animals. These methods become prohibitive with large, dangerous, or rare species, such as large predatory sharks, and can have significant consequences for individual survival and behaviour. Therefore, there is a need for methods and hardware to non-invasively and rigidly attach biologging tags to sharks that present limited effects on the animals and researchers.

Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Blue sharks tagging

Scientists in the Azores islands of Portugal are gaining a new understanding into the lives of one of the ocean’s most fascinating and mysterious creatures, the blue shark (Prionace glauca). Jorge Fontes, an Azorean native marine ecologist at Okeanos-UAc marine research center, University of the Azores, leads a team of researchers studying this charismatic elasmobranch in the Azores archipelago. Though recreational divers come from all over the world to see the memorizing sharks, not much is known about the natural history fine-scale behaviour and habitat use. With the help of Fred Buyle, combining their amazing freediving skills with creative non-invasive attachment methods and state-of-the-art prototype data and video logging towed tags, Jorge Fontes has been pioneering the investigation of their fine-scale behaviour and ecology, providing a new and unprecedented look into the life of these mysterious and elegant sharks.Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

The beauty of the new non-invasive tagging method lays on its simplicity. Like an underwater cowboy, the free divers place a self-releasing “lasso” that is retained on the shark’s pectoral fins as they constantly move forward to force the water flow through the gills, towing the low drag torpedo-shaped camera tags and sensors. These innovative tags, rated to 2000 meters, combine multiple high-frequency accelerometers, magnetometer, speed, depth, temperature sensors as well as HD video. At night and bellow 100 m, two red LEDs are triggered to allow a glimpse into the world of darkness that contrasts with the crystal-clear water at the top of the seamounts. Red lighting is designed to not impact the behaviour of both the sharks and their prey. After 24 or 48h, the lasso dissolves and the tag floats to the surface and to transmit satellite and radio beacons used to track and recover the tags for data download and recharge for the next deployment. Using these tools, the team will be able to learn some of their secrets.Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Bold, respectful and talented, Fred Buyle has not finished surprising us.

Three sharks are killed by man every second as against five humans killed by sharks each year [1].

90 % of sharks have disappeared from the Mediterranean [2].

By targeting sick or wounded fish, sharks keep the ecosystem in balance [3].

Tens of tagged great white sharks led scientists to a remote mid-Pacific area where they gather for a few months. It was nicknamed the “White Shark Café” [4]!

The thresher shark uses its surprisingly long caudal fin to whip and knock out its prey [5].

[1] hécatombe (Marine Policy, 2013) Dihubhumains tués (International Shark Attack Files, 2019)
[2] disparition (Conservation Biology, 2008)

Click to access Ferretti.etal.2008.pdf


Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Questions & Answers With Fred Buyle & Jorge Fontes

How long does the tag remain on the shark?  

It normally remains up to 48h but it can also be more.

What is the list of the parameters detected with the tags?

We record high frequency (100 Hz; 100 measurements per second), 3D acceleration, gyro and magnetic heading, speed, depth and temperature. Moreover, when the shark surfaces for less than a second, its GPS position is recorded. We also collect the HD video with red lights in the camera tag version. We are interested in the vertical and horizontal behaviours, feeding and social interactions and energy use, based on the tail beats and speed essentially.Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Are there any advances in miniaturization of these biologging tags? They seem very big for the animal. 

We are currently looking for funding to miniaturize the tags. Anyway, the tags are super low drag, which signifies that we don’t add more than 5% drag and float to the animal, meaning we are limited to tagging blue sharks over 2.5 m long.

Is there a massive potential of animal-borne sensors to teach us about the oceans and global warming?

Yes. We are currently looking to integrate an O2 sensor in our tags to learn how the deoxygenation of the oceans due to warming, and excess of CO2 will affect deep diving sharks that forage at depth for example. Devil rays and whale sharks also dive very deep, possibly to forage or to orient themselves over long migrations. Therefore, if O2 is depleted at depth, it will be a barrier for these guys. Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Sometimes an animal’s mood makes all the difference. Are they surprisingly easy to tag – if you can catch them at the right time?

Indeed, we can only tag the animals that are “in the mood”. If we try to impose our methods, the animal will just swim away, therefore yes, we depend on the animal’s attitude and character.

What is the average time that it takes to see a blue shark and put a tag on it? Is it 10 minutes, an hour? 

It is hard to say, because chumming to attract can range from 10 min to 4-5 hours. It is very variable and depends a lot on the behavior and abundance of sharks in the area.

Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

Apparently, researchers have developed a huge variety of workarounds and electronic tags. Can you tell us more about what’s available for scientists today?

Today the most popular technology used are the acoustic tags (they output a “ping” that needs to be tracked with a hydrophone – active following or a network of stations) and satellite tracking tags. The most used sat tags are spots (ping position when at the surface for a few minutes) and PAT archival tags, that measure and archive (over months) depth, temperature and light levels. In the end, the stored information is sent to a satellite and to the researcher. Light levels can be used to estimate movement tracks over large scales (ocean wide), but the error is significant at smaller scales. There is a number of custom-made tags that have similar sensors as we have but are all for fixed attachment, and you normally need to fish and restrain the shark. If it’s a big shark and you can approach, they can be attached to the dorsal fin with a clamp.

Can you show us a chart or any results of a successful tag monitoring? 

This is relatively complex as there are many variables being measured. Below is an example regarding the depth and tail beet cycles of a tiger shark we did recently in Hawaii.

About Fred Buyle

Buyle is a free diver and underwater photographer born in 1972. He has been connected to the sea since childhood when he spent several months each year on the family sailboat. At 10, an age when most kids are still skipping rope in the schoolyard, he discovered free diving. Plunging into the oxygen tank-free technique for the next years of his life, he became a scuba diving instructor, teaching free diving in beginning in 1991.

He set his first world record in 1995 and decided to dedicate his life to free diving. He broke three additional world records between 1997 and 2000 and in 1999, passed the mythical 100-meter depth on one breath of air.

In 2002, he began a second career in underwater photography. His goal:  to show the beauty of free diving and the animals in their natural, underwater world. Using only natural light, Buyle has captured images of sharks, ray, fish, dolphins and countless other majestic specimens of marine life.

Buyle comes from an artistic background; His grand grandfather was a pioneer of photography in the 1890’s, his grandfather was a painter and his father an advertising and fashion photographer during the 1960’s. His work reflects these influences, showing a subtle beauty that only comes with an experienced eye.

Buyle uses a simple formula for his photographs: water, available light, a camera and one breath of air. With simple equipment and freedom to move around, a free diver can capture unique moments. Fred has been taking pictures as far down as 60 meters on a single breath of air in remote locations inaccessible to even scuba divers. This “Zen” approach makes Buyle’s photography different from any other underwater photography.

Concerned by conservations issues, in 2005 Buyle began to work with marine biologists, assisting them in their field work. He uses his freediving abilities to approach the animals and perform tasks such as acoustic and satellite tagging and DNA sampling. Buyle has worked with teams from Colombia, Mexico, France, the UK, the Philippines and South Africa, sharing his practical knowledge and personal experience with marine life. Fearlessly approaching great white sharks, great hammerheads, scalloped hammerheads, lemon sharks, ferox sharks, humpback whales, sperm whales and orcas, he never uses a protective cage, which can disturb the animals.

During these missions, Fred carefully documents the field work he performs in order to contribute to the conservation efforts on a larger scale through talks, conferences and his own website. He believes that positive imagery is more effective than the catastrophism widely used in the media nowadays and his images are used by NGOs around the world for their conservation campaigns.

About Jorge Fontes

Jorge Fontes is an Azorean Marine Biologist with broad scientific background and interests ranging from the ecology, management and conservation of coastal ecosystems to the behaviour and conservation of marine megafauna from the Open Ocean and deep sea. Jorge has also a solid background in applied marine technology, ranging from applied marine robotics to the development of innovative non/invasive marine animal tracking solutions.

Fred Buyle Ulysse Nardin

About Ulysse Nardin – Manufacture of Freedom

Ulysse Nardin is the Pioneering Manufacture inspired by the sea and delivering innovative timepieces to free spirits.

Founded by Mr. Ulysse Nardin in 1846 and a proud member of the global luxury group Kering since November 2014, Ulysse Nardin has written some of the finest chapters in the history of Haute Horlogerie. The company’s earliest renown came from its links to the nautical world: its marine chronometers are among the most reliable ever made, still sought by collectors around the world. A pioneer of cutting-edge technologies and the innovative use of materials like silicon, the brand is one of the few with the in-house expertise to produce its own high-precision components and movements. This exceptional level of watchmaking excellence has earned Ulysse Nardin membership in the most exclusive circle of Swiss watchmaking, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. Today, from its sites in Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, the brand’s continuing quest for horological perfection centres around five collections: The Marine, the Diver, the Classico, the Executive and the Freak. In 2020, Ulysse Nardin explores the Xtremes, bringing the X-factor to the core of its collections.

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