A French tourist visiting Canada for the first time with his family captured on video a close encounter Sunday with the planet's second largest mammal — a finback whale.   

Eric Mouellic posted three videos to YouTube after whale-watching near Tadoussac, Que., at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers, 215 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

"An unforgettable experience!" Mouellic said after the finback surfaced — its mouth wide open — just shy of the small Zodiac-type inflatable boat.

The dark grey whale, with its distinctive pleated underbelly, then plunged down, passing right beneath the boat before disappearing with a dip of its tail.

"We were really lucky," said Mouellic in an interview via email. "Within 15 minutes of our departure, we saw porpoises, seals, belugas and several finback whales."

"It was already marvelous. Then there were these two finbacks, one of which passed under the Zodiac without touching the boat."

Mouellic admitted to a moment of trepidation while he was filming, fearing the great mammal would strike the boat.

"But it was, in fact, magic," he said. Even the boat operator told his passengers he'd never witnessed anything like it in 15 years.

Coming up for krill

The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, a vast conservation area co-managed by the federal and Quebec governments, is one of the world's great whale-watching sites.

Humpbacks, finbacks, minke and even the occasional North Atlantic right whale and killer whale congregate in the rich feeding grounds through the summer and fall, and beluga whales live in the region year-round.

'It was, in fact, magic.' -- French tourist Eric Mouellic

"All the whales come here for one reason: They come here to feed," said Patrice Corbeil, the education director of the Groupe de recherche et d'éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM)  — a non-profit marine mammal research and interpretation centre based in Tadoussac.

Corbeil says finback whales usually feed as deep as 100 metres below the surface, coming up to take three or four breaths before plunging back down, where they feast on entire schools of fish and krill.

"This one was probably feeding on krill," said Corbeil. He explained that the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are sometimes brought close to the surface in vast numbers in an upswell.

"The finback needs to eat one to two tonnes a day," Corbeil said.

Boat operator acted properly

Whale-watching boats in the marine park are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance and have signed an agreement to practice responsible boating in the area, keeping a distance from the marine mammals to avoid disturbing them or risking a collision.

"The boat was in neutral," Corbeil observed after watching the video on YouTube. "It doesn't move."

What no one expected was for the whale to approach the boat as it did.

"The whale doesn't know the rules!" Corbeil said.

In the video, Mouellic records the thrilled screams of his fellow passengers. According to Corbeil, they were never in grave danger.

"You notice that the whale avoided hurting the boat. They don't like to hit anything on the surface. That's why the whale turned ... on its side. Right on the surface, you can see just how big it is — 18 metres long, 50 tonnes in weight."

"It's really, really huge."