YORAM ZEKRI MOVED TO FRENCH POLYNESIA five years ago. We kept in touch, meeting at dive shows and freediving competitions, and then he asked if I would like to come and tour the islands with him. I said yes. I knew that September would be the perfect season to dive with one of the ocean's biggest animals - the humpback whale.
After a 24-hour trip in a new Air Tahiti A340, I am welcomed by Yoram at the airport with a traditional flower necklace.
The next morning we leave for Rurutu, one of the best places to meet whales, and one of those hidden treasures that help maintain Polynesian traditions.
Part of the Australes group, 340 miles south of Tahiti, this small island was discovered in 1769 by James Cook. In this archipelago its geology is unique, and it features numerous caves shaped by eroding limestone.
There is no lagoon or coral barrier, but beautiful white beaches and hills covered with deep forests.
About 2100 people live here, fishing and farming, and they are very friendly. The island group is Polynesia's main supplier of fruit and vegetables, thanks to the quality of its soil and cooler climate.
We are welcomed at the small airport by Yves Lefevre, who owns the dive centre, and Christian Petron, the underwater cameraman who collaborated on the films Big Blue, Atlantis and Titanic. They are after whale footage for a big-screen documentary and offer us space on their boat.
We couldn't have better guides, because they have dived here with the whales for seven years and know the humpbacks' behaviour better than anyone in Polynesia.
The boats are waiting on the concrete dock. The dive centre contracts fishermen for whale-watching, as they know the whales' habits and can obtain some additional incomes.
The boats are fast 24ft glass-fibre diesel craft with a peculiar 'broomstick' steering system that allows a fisherman to drive with one hand and spear dorados with the other.
We soon see our first whale - a young male a few hundred metres from shore. Pierre drives the boat towards where it disappeared below the surface, and marine biologist Eric slowly slips into the water to confirm that the whale is sleeping.
We put on our fins and masks and silently enter the water. The whale is resting without moving, neutrally buoyant at 25m, typical behaviour in the crystalline waters of Rurutu.
It is probably accumulating strength for the 3100-mile trip to Antarctica's feeding zones that it will have to accomplish by mid-October.
I don't know what to think, I simply look at it, smiling in my mask. From time to time I look at Yoram. He has the same expression on his face.
Eric tells us that it's difficult to approach the whales when they are resting at depth. They are sleeping but all their senses are alert to danger. After 20 minutes the whale surfaces, looks at us, swims 200m away, breathes and dives for another nap.
We observe the whale for a few more sleep-cycles while trying to work out how to approach him at depth. We finally decide to dive in front of him, but at a certain distance.
This will allow him to keep us in sight and decide whether we are a threat or not. We will be able to see his reaction, and stop the dive if necessary to avoid disturbing or stressing him.
Yoram does his duck dive and I follow with the camera. We slowly glide to 25m, level with the whale. We are still 25-30m away, and start swimming very carefully in the direction of the huge immobile shape.
It takes us almost a minute, but Yoram finally stops 4m from the whale. I'm just behind him, close enough to see the curiosity in his eye. We reckon this is the safety distance for him, and that he wouldn't have allowed us to approach closer.
We enjoy these few seconds with him. Instead of swimming straight to the surface, we swim back a few metres and finally start our slow ascent.
It was a long freedive, but we had found out how to get close to a whale without disturbing it too much.
At Rurutu Lodge, we chat to Yves and Christian over dinner. Bubbles are considered a sign of aggression by most marine mammals, and Yves says that there are only two ways to approach the whales - freediving or on closed-circuit rebreathers. They are using pure oxygen rebreathers for shallow shots and APD Evolutions for the deeper stuff.

Eternity on one breath
We discuss the similarities between freediving and technical diving, and tell them that tech divers often attend our freediving courses to learn about breathing techniques and relaxation.
The evening ends in the equipment room, watching some of the footage the pair took the week before. Three whales dance in front of the camera, then one rushes to the surface, breaches and dives back to join the other two. Impressive.
Over the following days, we dive again with the young male. Once we are lucky enough to be down when he decides to surface after his nap. He 'wakes up', slowly approaches Yoram, turns upside-down and swims away in that position.
It takes only a few seconds but it seems an eternity on one breath at 30m. The film crew get it all and the snorkellers on another boat get their entertainment for the day!
We also freedive with several whales at a time. It's a bit more complicated, as they are not sleeping when together, and swim slowly or stop for a few seconds.
It takes anticipation and co-ordination to dive at the right moment and at the right place to meet them under water.
Our most memorable encounter occurs two days before we leave. The swell is almost 4m, the sea rough and it has been windy and rainy all day.
After three hours we are about to give up and head home when we find two humpbacks, very calm in such tough conditions. The skipper drops Yves and Jo, the film production's photographer, 150m from the whales. They will try to approach them at the bottom.
We enter the water above the whales. One is near the bottom at 30m and the other, a big female, stands vertically between 15m and the seabed. We decide to dive between them.
Just before my duck dive, I notice the two rebreather divers below and perhaps 20m away from the whales.
When Yoram reaches the deepest whale, I position myself to have him and the two whales in the frame. The animals are quiet. Then suddenly I see them moving, apparently scared.
I look round to see what has triggered this behaviour.
Fifteen metres away from me, I see Jo ascending surrounded by bubbles. He has done a wrong manoeuvre and needs to purge his rebreather.
The spectacle is unbelievable - a ballet at 30m. Yoram is heading back up but I wait, fascinated by what is happening in front of me. The whales are moving and try to find the best trajectory between the reef, the divers and a freediver - me.
The big female is heading at full speed towards me. I choose not to move and wait (still on my single breath). She sees me, maintains her course but slowly lifts her fin and passes over me.
Wow! I ascend to find Yoram laughing and saying that it has been one of his best dives ever.

Full-moon birth
On the last day, I have the chance of doing a couple of dives with a mother and her new-born baby. They are followed by an 'escort', the name given to the young male who protects the females and calves.
Eric had been expecting the birth the night before, having noticed that most happen on full-moon nights. The calf has a light grey coloration. His skin seems too big for him, but he will gain a lot of weight in the next few days and the skin will be filled quickly. After six weeks, he will be strong enough to start the migration to Antarctica with the other whales.
It's time to fly back to Tahiti. Next year we will return to Rurutu to freedive with the peaceful giants again.
I look through the aircraft window and try to imagine the whales' journey to the feeding area in Antartica. I think about diving with them there someday. The biggest challenge will be convincing Yoram to model for me in icy waters...


Freediver Yoram Zekri joins in with a whale dance in Rurutu.

Two whales on the reef

FACTS

HUMPBACK WHALE
• Unlike most mammals, humpback whale females are larger than the males.
• The male humpback's whale song can last between 10 and 30 minutes.
• Scientific name Megaptera noveangliae means 'giant wings', after the humpback's large flippers, which can measure as much as a third of its body length.
• Whales can never choke on their food. Their breathing hole is separated from their eating hole, allowing them to breathe and eat at the same time.
• More than 140,000 humpbacks were recorded as killed in the southern hemisphere alone before 1966, when they became protected by international law.



Frederic Buyle