The Shark Whisperer
Bull sharks, an aggressive species, often hunt close to shore.
Credit: Alexander Safonov / Getty Images
Three days later, Buyle is in a motorboat off the coast of La Possession marina, which is where the remains of a woman killed by a bull shark were recovered in October. With him are Fabrice Schnöller, a local marine researcher, shark expert, and free-diver; Markus Fix, a German computer programmer and the man responsible for the technical aspects of Sharkfriendly, wearing a T-shirt that reads science: it works, bitches; William Winram, a champion free-diver from Canada, who has joined Buyle on several previous tagging missions; and Guy Gazzo, a 74-year-old local free-diver and spearfisherman.

While the crew members don their gloves, boots, and wetsuits, and grab their goggles and spearguns, Buyle descends into the diamond-clear water below. He kicks a straight line down, descending 60 feet, deep into the shadows of the ocean. Finally, at the seafloor, he stops, crosses his legs, and takes a seat on a patch of white sand. He sits for five full minutes, holding his breath, watching and waiting for the sharks to come.

Buyle goes to great lengths to convince people that tagging man-eating sharks is perfectly safe. "Do I look like some adrenaline junkie?" he had said, the day before, in his rental apartment at Boucan Canot. With his soft-spoken voice, French accent, and perpetual grin, Buyle exudes a mellow calm. "Skydiving, jumping with bikes – I hate all that shit," he said. "Free-diving with sharks is the opposite of an adrenaline sport. You can't do it if you're aggressive – you need to be balanced. You need to know yourself."

Buyle showed me video footage of him swimming with tiger sharks, grabbing hold of the back of their dorsal fins, diving hundreds of feet deep into a school of hammerheads. The deeper Buyle goes beneath the surface, the more he becomes a part of the underwater environment, as if he actually belongs down there. The sharks, at least, seem to think he does. As he approaches them, the sharks go from skittish to curious, almost playful. "What people don't understand," Buyle says, "is that when you come down to their level, look them in the eye, they get it. We're just no longer on the menu."

"We're bigger than something the sharks would want to eat," says Peter Klimley, a pioneer in shark-tagging research and director of the Biotelemetry Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. "Sharks show aggressive displays when they are frightened. Buyle is very good at what he does – the guy is in control."

Growing up in an adventurous family, Buyle was diving at age seven, spearfishing by 10, and swimming with sharks at 13, while diving in Indonesia. "I saw no signs of aggression," says Buyle. "I was happy to dive with them." He discovered free-diving in his early twenties, and by 28, he had claimed four world records in the sport, once swimming downward 338 feet in a single breath. These days, Buyle spends most of his time photographing marine animals, lecturing at diving events, leading free-diving tours, and, when he's lucky, doing what he loves best: educating the public about sharks, which he considers the most misunderstood animal on the planet. "For centuries, all we heard were stories about navigators going around the world, getting eaten by sharks," he says. "The fact is, nobody knew anything about sharks. Humans fear what they don't know. When we're afraid of something, we try to get rid of it, to kill it. It's basic human behavior."

On the motorboat, as Buyle and the other divers troll for bait, Schnöller and Fix try to attract bull sharks to the area by blasting the water with the sound of wounded fish. "The recording is from 1966 – it's the only one I could find," says Schnöller, using a jury-rigged car stereo hooked up to a waterproof speaker to play the sound of a crinkling plastic bottle, which happens to sound like the scream of a crippled kingfish. Schnöller says a fisherman in Australia discovered that sharks, which have keen audio senses and can home in on prey from up to 800 feet away, were attracted to the sound of AC/DC – "You Shook Me All Night Long," in particular. "What they're listening for is random bursts of low frequencies," he says. "There's a lot of that in AC/DC." To that end, the team will try its own heavy metal shark-attractor test by blasting the water with German quasi-fascist band Rammstein – Fix's idea. "The long-haired shark will like it," says Schnöller.

Gazzo goes down next, kicking his carbon-fiber fins slowly, his speargun close at hand. The divers wear wetsuits less for insulation – the water temperature here is a balmy 78 degrees – and more to deter accidental attacks. Sharks, before they bite, often conduct a kind of taste test by bumping their noses into prey and emitting a short blast of electrical signals. If the signals conduct, as they do against animal or human flesh, there's a good chance the shark will attack. Wetsuits dull these electrical signals, reminding the sharks that, as Buyle puts it, we're not on the menu.

Buyle follows, paddling close behind. At 40 feet, he reaches neutral buoyancy, the depth at which the ocean stops pushing you to the surface and starts pulling you to the seafloor, and he puts his arms at his side and glides effortlessly down, as if being sucked to the bottom. Meanwhile, Winram is flapping his arms and legs at the surface, pretending to be a wounded seal while keeping a watchful eye on the water below.

With no sharks in sight, the divers spear a few fish and gut them inside a makeshift strainer made from a discarded washing-machine drum. The water is now full of blood and thumping with the sound of screaming kingfish. The team fixes the specially designed transmitter tags to spearguns and readies itself to go deep again. A few minutes later, Buyle pops his head from the water. "Oui, shark!" he says. He's spotted a bull shark on the ocean floor and motions to Gazzo and Winram to follow him down. Minutes pass before they resurface. Unfortunately, they've lost the shark, and there are no more to be found.

"They are just so nervous," says Buyle. The men spend another four hours diving before finally giving up. "I've never seen anything like this," he adds, shouting above the din of the motors as the team heads back to shore. "In Madagascar, Mexico, Polynesia, you dive, and there are sharks everywhere. You can't help but be around them."

Buyle believes that what is bringing the sharks to Réunion to feed so close to shore is not shark overpopulation but some sort of disturbance in the underwater environment. That they fail to discover sharks today is disappointing, but it also suggests that Buyle might be right. "The first thing we learned here," he says, "is that Réunion just doesn't have many sharks."