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Swimming with giants: an underwater photo odyssey

Six sperm whales surfacing for air, as freediver Guillaume Néry swims beneath them.
Underwater photographer Franck Seguin captured these spectacular shots of freediver Guillaume Néry dwarfed by six enormous sperm whales in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Mauritius. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM) at 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Franck Seguin

Dwarfed by the sperm whales swimming overhead, world champion freediver Guillaume Néry appears mesmerised by the graceful movements of the majestic creatures and the interplay of light and motion beneath the waves. The man capturing this dramatic image is Franck Seguin, one of the world's leading underwater photographers and a great admirer of freedivers, who descend to great depths while holding their breath rather than relying on breathing apparatus. "They reach places that most of us can't go," he says. "What they do is more than an athletic achievement – it's a search to find harmony with nature."

The images are part of One Breath Around the World – a collaborative project that saw Franck and Guillaume freediving through ancient rock formations, exploring the Yucatán's famous cenotes, climbing underwater trees and even meditating on the ocean floor.

The pair met through the freediving community and became close friends after Guillaume retired. Inspired by tales of epic journeys crossing continents, they decided to embark on a similar odyssey – underwater. Combing through spectacular dive sites, they finally settled on six locations – the Philippines, Mexico, Mauritius, French Polynesia, Japan and Finland. "We decided to explore the freediving world through oceans," says Franck, a Paris-based Canon Ambassador who heads the photo production department at L'Équipe newspaper.

Freediver Guillaume Néry lies on the surface of an ancient underwater structure off the coast of Japan.
Guillaume at Yonaguni Monument, submerged rock formations off the coast of Yonaguni, Japan, one of six locations he and Franck chose for their One Breath Around the World project. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 18mm, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Franck Seguin
Freediver Guillaume Néry swimming under a layer of thick ice.
Guillaume diving under a layer of thick ice. The audience at the Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism in 2019 were dazzled by Franck's whale images when they were shown at an evening screening. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2000. © Franck Seguin
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Confidence-giving kit

For such an ambitious expedition, Franck needed a kitbag that would equip him for any situation. About 70% of the project was shot on a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens, paired with Franck's Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, all in a waterproof housing.

"For working underwater, it's the perfect coupling," says Franck. "The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is so professional and solid – you can totally rely on it. I really appreciate the versatility of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens underwater, where you can't change lenses. Whatever focal length you use, you can count on having the best quality photograph. When I shoot with this setup I can do my job with confidence. I had to feel confident with my equipment, so I could leave room for creativity."

Franck also shot some images on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II), and when he knew he didn't need the zoom range, he used his second lens, a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM).

Franck Seguin in his dive gear, with his camera in an underwater housing, photographed in the waters of Mauritius.
Franck in his dive gear in the waters of Mauritius. The dives never lasted for longer than two minutes, so the images were carefully composed above the water. © Guillaume Néry

Being unencumbered by heavy scuba gear lent a freedom to Franck's photography, but also left him precious little time to get the shot. While Guillaume can hold his breath for a staggering eight minutes, for safety reasons none of the team stayed underwater for more than two minutes at a time – which is about the limit of Franck's lung capacity.

"Swimming in the ocean far from the coast, it can become dangerous at any time," says Franck. "The most important thing is to never exceed your limits. It's not important to be a freediver with a very high skill level – you need to think of your picture before entering the water, be in the right place and shoot quickly."

Carefully choreographed above the water, the images could then be captured swiftly on each two-minute dive. The pair would then return to the surface for air, before diving again – sometimes as many as 10 to 15 times.

Two humpback whales and a calf swimming, with freediver Guillaume Néry metres away, in French Polynesia.
Guillaume diving alongside humpback whales in French Polynesia. With less light available underwater, Franck relied on the speed of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens to get sharp shots while keeping pace with the whales. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 1/500 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Franck Seguin
Freediver Guillaume Néry is suspended in the water surrounded by eight sperm whales, illuminated with rays of light.
In one of Franck's most stunning shots, Guillaume is suspended in the water surrounded by eight sperm whales, beautifully illuminated by rays of light. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Franck Seguin
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A gift from nature

Some of the most striking images came from their two encounters with whales – humpback whales in Mo'orea, French Polynesia, and sperm whales off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Accomplished freediver Julie Gautier, Guillaume's partner at the time, captured mesmerising footage for an accompanying 12-minute video – Franck and Julie took turns shooting, working in harmony to ensure they didn't get in each other's shots.

For Franck, it was his first experience swimming with the underwater giants. Like all wildlife photography, it required patience. While tracking humpback whales in Mo'orea, the team went days without any sightings. "We went to sea at 6am and we came back at sunset," says Franck. "We spent six days without seeing any whales and we were getting quite desperate."

One day, the stars aligned and they spotted a pod of humpback whales. Swimming alongside these awesome subjects tested Guillaume and Franck's stamina as much as their lung capacity. "They were always moving – they never stopped," says Franck. "I might have swum for 45 minutes, which is exhausting. But I felt joy and fulfilment diving with whales."
A diver next to sperm whales sleeping, floating vertically in the water.
When Franck first dived among the pod of sperm whales, they were sleeping – floating vertically in the water. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/6.3 and ISO640. © Franck Seguin
Freediver Guillaume Néry swimming alongside sperm whales.
"Male sperm whales measure between 15m and 20m – they are huge and impressive," says Franck. "They can dive for 90 minutes at depths of 3,000m. Furthermore, they are real sea hunters, using a sonar system for cruising and hunting." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/6.3 and ISO640. © Franck Seguin

"Underwater, everything is more complicated," he says. "The focus, being able to use the viewfinder, triggering the shutter release, and the light settings – even the fact that you're constantly moving. Shooting with a fast lens means the technical difficulties are halved, and that's huge in such tricky working conditions."

Franck says his "greatest memories" came at the end of their trip in Mauritius when, after days of searching the waters with a hydrophone – an acoustic probe – to hear whale calls under the surface, they found a group of 15 sperm whales.

Sperm whales made natural subjects for this project – record-breaking freedivers themselves, they can dive to depths of 3,000 metres for up to 90 minutes. To discover such a large pod, including mothers and calves, sleeping vertically, exceeded all expectations. And diving while holding their breath meant Guillaume, Franck and Julie weren't releasing air bubbles and were quieter in the water, allowing them to swim silently around the sleeping giants.

"Guillaume dove towards them vertically, with his arms outstretched to stabilise himself," recalls Franck. "I was following him, freediving with my fin. Everything balanced itself. All my settings were done on the surface. I was confident, the light was magical. When I looked at the pictures, I realised it was a gift from a nature."

The hour and a half spent with the pod is something that will stay with Franck forever. "Sperm whales are so special," he says. "During the dive, Guillaume and I tried to be accepted by the group, and we both felt they allowed us to be there and [allowed] me to take pictures. It was a magical encounter in the Indian Ocean."

Skrevet af Lucy Fulford and Kathrine Anker


Franck Seguin's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Franck Seguin's kitbag.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

No matter what you’re shooting, be assured of uncompromising image quality and a thoroughly professional performance. "The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is so professional and solid – you can totally rely on it," says Franck.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The successor to the camera Franck used. Life is full of unrepeatable moments. Capture more of them with the EOS-1D X Mark III and tell your visual story to the world.

Lenses

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