Fred Bavendam is an American with a passion for marine animals and photography. After growing up in Ohio, he attended the University of New Hampshire from which he graduated with majors in art and zoology.
He spent the next few years working as a commercial photographer. At the age of 28, Fred took an introductory scuba course and began diving and taking underwater pictures as a hobby. Over time, the hobby became an obsession until he abandoned commercial photography to devote all his efforts to underwater photography in 1985.
Fred's goal, as he takes each picture, is to capture the essence that makes each animal a unique being and the behaviors that allow it to survive in a hungry ocean.
He likes nothing more than to take a diver (or even several divers) along with him to follow, observe and photograph a single animal. As a result, his pictures are highly sought after and have been published in many of the world's top magazines.
Fred's definitive photo essays about manatees, the giant octopus, crinoids and frogfishes were each published in National Geographic, Geo Germany and Geo France. Additional stories on cuttlefish, nudibranchs, sea stars, monkfish and marine animal behavior have appeared in many other magazines such as Figaro, Terre Sauvage, Airone, International Wildlife, Smithsonian, Newton and Quark. He has also won several BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contests.
In 1987 Fred made a decision that changed the course of his life. He had come across a female giant octopus guarding her clutch of eggs in a den off the coast of British Columbia and decided to return when they were due to hatch. Six months later the den was empty, but Bavendam resolved to stay on, diving and shooting largely at his own expense for months.
"You'd go weeks without seeing a giant octopus, and then you'd have a great day," he says. Or a tense one, as he discovered 9 fathoms down when a giant octopus, drawn to his flashing camera, wrapped two of its 3-foot arms around Bavendam's head and shoulder, nearly dislodging his mask.
His decision to devote months to the giant octopus not only produced spectacular photos and articles in Geo Germany, Geo France and National Geographic magazines, it made Bavendam famous in photography circles for his intimate acquaintance with a solitary, largely unknown creature that can grow to 30 feet across and weigh up to 600 pounds.
To become a top underwater photographer, Bavendam says, "you have to know what you're doing, but you also need some breaks. For me, the break was going after the giant octopus."
Bavendam learned to love swimming and photography in high school in Springfield, Ohio. He arrived at UNH in 1963, but left after three years to join the Marine Corps and serve in Vietnam. Returning to UNH two years later Fred finished his degree in 1970—an education, he says, "from A to Z," for art and zoology.
While diving off the coast of New Hampshire, Bavendam found abundant material—from naked sea butterflies to the wolffish—for his first book, Beneath Cold Waters: The Marine Life of New England. In underwater photography, he discovered, he was able to combine his passions for both diving, photography, and animals. "A lot of people dive to take pictures; I take pictures to dive," says Bavendam, now a veteran of more than 5,000 dives. "The camera pays my way."
Bavendam's first National Geographic essay, shot over the course of three winters, presented Florida manatees in images both rare (a mother nursing two calves at once) and troubling (a calf mouthing a boat's anchor line), dramatizing the sea cow's struggle to survive in the warm waters of Crystal River. In the years since, he's photographed more than 1,000 marine species and published a number of articles. In 2004, he was profiled in a book onthe world's top photographers.
Bavendam says he's not that focused on "big, dramatic animals," like sharks. "What moves me is finding a behavior I was unaware of or hadn't seen before that makes me feel I know this animal better." In Bali, for example, where he's done hundreds of dives, he can walk into the water any time of day or night and see something that he's never seen before. "I take photos first and foremost, to please me. Then I think about how things will sell."
It was in Bali in November 2003 that Bavendam found an octopus doing something that he had never seen before. It was a coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), a small species that lives in sand or mud and often retreats into empty sea shells or coconut shells on the seabed. This particular octopus had picked up two halves of a coconut shell, using one as a house, the other as a door. "If I got too close, he'd pull them together," says Bavendam. "I'd pick up the whole shell and he'd pull it tighter; I'd put it down, back off, and he'd come out again."
Bavendam wondered if this octopus knew what he was doing. "I took the smaller piece of shell and set it about one foot away," Bavendam recalls. "He hesitated, then reached out and pulled the piece back to block the entrance."
This was tool use by an invertebrate—and Bavendam was among the first to recognize the octopus's behavior as tool use. But because he's not a scientist, marine experts discounted his findings. "I'm not a credentialed biologist," says Bavendam. "Just a guy with a camera." It wasn't until 2009 that a paper on the octopus's tool use was published by Australian researchers in the journal Current Biology.
Octopuses fascinate Bavendam. "Most tool users, such as primates, birds and dolphins, have long life spans and receive parental nurturing and training," Bavendam says. "As the baby coconut octopuses hatch from the egg, their mother dies. There is no parental nurturing as there is with the other tool-users, mammals and birds. And they only live for about a year. And yet they use tools."
Some cephalopods—squid, cuttlefish and octopuses—can communicate and camouflage themselves with color patterns so cleverly they can send two messages at once. "I've seen an octopus display a coloration pattern on the side of his body facing a nearby female that says, 'Let's do it, Babe,' and on the opposite side of his body, towards me, he is displaying a camouflage pattern, essentially saying, 'I'm not here,'" Bavendam says.
Bavendam, who lives half the year in Sarasota, Fla., spends the rest of the year diving, mostly in Southeast Asia and Australia diving. "If I won the lottery," he says, "I'd do the same thing. I just wouldn't have to spend time on selling my pictures"