Pilot Whale

Pilot whales are large aquatic mammals belonging to the Globicephala genus. The genus consists of 2 extant species, the Short Finned Pilot Whale and the Long Finned Pilot Whale. Between these two species, the animals are found in marine waters all over the world. They are closely related to the extinct blunt-snouted dolphins. Extant relatives of the whale include the Risso’s dolphin, false killer whale, melon-headed whale and the pygmy killer whale. Pilot whales are often referred to as “Blackfish” along with a number of other species belonging to the Dolphin family.

Scientific Classification

Globicephala melas

Table Of Content

Scientific Classification

Globicephala melas


The two species have similar physical appearance, making it difficult to identify them in water. However, there are certain distinctions between them, such as size and weight. Both species display specific sexual dimorphism as well.

Body: Their bodies are more plump and robust compared to most other species from the dolphin family.

Size: The long finned species is usually larger than the short finned one with an adult long finned whale reaching a length of approximately 6.5 m. The males are about a meter longer than the females. For the short finned species, adult males grow around 7.2 m long while the average body length of the females is approximately 5.5 m.

Weight: The male long finned whales weigh around 2,300 kg with the females weighing about 1,300 kg. The average body weight of the male short finned whales is around 3,200 kg while the females can weigh up to 1,500 kg.

Color: They are principally dark gray, black or brownish in color with light patches marking certain areas. For example, the area behind their dorsal fins is marked with a light grayish saddle pitch. They also have a pale anchor-shaped band under their chins while a faint blaze marking can be seen behind both eyes. Other lighter areas include a large pale marking on their bellies and the light genital patches.

Skull: The characteristic skulls of the two species help in their distinction and identification. Skull of the short finned species has a short and broad rostum along with a premaxilla covering a large portion of the maxilla. The long finned species have skulls with elongated rostrums and comparatively exposed maxillas.

Pilot Whale Skull Photo

Pilot Whale Skull

Head: The male short finned pilot whales have distinctive globular heads that can even droop and hang over their mouth, especially in older individuals. Both the species have one large bulbous melon in front of their heads.

Teeth: Short finned whales have 14 to 18 short yet tough teeth on each side of their jaws, at the front side of their mouths while the long finned species have 18 to 24 teeth on each jaw.

Pilot Whale Teeth Image

Pilot Whale Teeth

Fins and Flippers: The whales have a pair of sickle-shaped flippers with their length varying between the two species. The tail stocks are flattened from one side to another. They also have one dorsal fin sweeping backwards from the frontal part of their backs.


The global population of long finned whales is divided into two parts, with the first and smaller one inhabiting the circumpolar band in the Southern Ocean between the altitudes of 20° S and 65° S. Sightings have been reported off the coasts of countries like Argentina, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The much larger second population is distributed in the North Atlantic Ocean, with their range extending from the waters of South Carolina in US across to Morocco and Azores in south and the waters of Newfoundland to Iceland, Greenland and northern regions of Norway in north. They are also found in the western Mediterranean Sea.

The short finned species is less populous with their distribution range including the tropical and temperate waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They are known to inhabit certain parts of California and Hawaii all year-round.


Long finned pilot whales prefer cold deep water with some populations permanently remaining offshore. They may move into inshore areas in search of food.

The short finned whales prefer warm tropical and sub-tropical waters with populations living around the outer boundaries of continental shelves. But, individuals have been reported to move towards the coastal areas, sometimes, far enough onshore to become stranded.

Pilot Whale Picture

Pilot Whale

What Do They Eat?

The diet of these carnivorous animals mainly consists of squids. They are also known to feed on various fishes as well as aquatic creatures such as cuttlefish, herring and octopus.


They have a characteristic behavior pattern that sets them apart from other similar species:

  • Pilot whales are social animals, forming large pods containing 40 to 100 individuals. The pods exhibit close matrilineal relationships.
  • These animals are generally nomadic in nature. But, some populations are known to stay at one place throughout the year.
  • While hunting, the whales close in on the prey in groups to trap it at the center of their pod. Then, they kill the prey together and feed on it.
  • They use specific vocalizations to communicate and contact with the other members of the pod. The sounds made by the members of the two species generally vary from one another. Active behaviors are accompanied by complex vocalizations while the simple vocalizations are associated with the less active behaviors.
  • The animals make simple whistling sounds while resting.
  • Despite being a social animal, the two species tend to avoid associating with each other. However, they may cross paths during migration.


Pilot whales do not have many enemies due to their large size. However, the short finned species have a few predators such as killer whales and certain large shark species.


Here is some information regarding the adaptive features of these mammals:

  • Like many other species in the dolphin family, pilot whales are capable of locating their prey using sound waves (echolocation). They make certain sounds and wait for the echo to return after hitting the object to determine its distance from them.
  • This animal has a large mouth with around 40 teeth that enable them to easily catch and kill aquatic creatures like octopus. The strong teeth are also used for fighting potential predators.
  • They have fewer teeth compared to other similar species. This is believed to be a special evolutionary adaptation to allow them feeding on large quantities of soft squid.
  • The streamlined shape of their bodies, along with the long tail, enables these large whales to propel easily through water.
  • The black-gray coloration of their bodies allows them to remain camouflaged in their natural environment, helping them to catch prey and avoid potential enemies.

Mating Season

The mating season for the long finned pilot whales begins in February and continues through March. The short finned whales are known to reproduce all year with the peak breeding season being July through August.

Photos of Pilot Whale Photo

Pilot Whale Photo


Female short finned pilot whales become reproductively mature at 9 years of age with the reproductive age for males being 13 years to 16 years. For the long finned species, females reach sexual maturity when 8 years old and males become mature at 12 years of age.

No evidence of male dominance and fight for mating rights have been found in either species. The male whale remains with the female only a few months after mating. One male can mate with multiple females in one pod. They contribute to the maintenance and survival of their mates as well as other members of the pod. Both species are known to reproduce once every 3 to 5 years with each female giving birth to 4 or 5 offspring during her entire lifetime. The female long finned pilot whale gives birth to one offspring 12 to 16 months after mating while in the short finned species, the gestation period lasts for about 15 months.

Female short finned whales are known to go through menopause after reaching a certain age. This is less common in the long finned species. Post-productive females often take part in raising the young whales in their pods. The long finned females have been found to reproduce and lactate almost all their lives.

Life Cycle

The baby whale, also referred to as a calf, generally nurses for around 3 years. However, the lactation usually continues for longer periods of time, allowing for deep mother-calf bonds. Both male and female whales usually remain in the same pods they were born in, even after becoming adults. This is an uncommon trait among mammals, only found in certain other killer whale communities.


The average life expectancy of the males is around 45 years while the females live for approximately 60 years.

Images of Pilot Whale

Pilot Whale Image

Conservation Status

Both species are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Data Deficient”. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or CMS listed the long finned populations from the North Sea and Baltic Sea in Appendix II. The short finned species is listed on the CITES Appendix II. The animals are protected by law in certain countries to save them from extinction. But, whalers in various countries continue to hunt them due to their unclear conservation status.

Interesting Facts

Find out some fascinating facts about them:

  • They are the largest oceanic dolphins ranked second only to the killer whale.
  • These animals are capable of eating up to 30 lbs of food in a day.
  • While hunting, short finned pilot whales can swim at speeds up to 20 mph and cover distances of around 650 feet at this speed. This unique missile-like diving technique has earned them the name “cheetahs of the deep”.
  • The long finned whales were earlier known as “pothead whales” among whalers due to their bulbous head that resembles a black cooking pot.
  • They are believed to have reasonably high intelligence levels, almost similar to that of bottlenose dolphins.
  • They often strand themselves on beaches in various places and are one of the most common stranders among all cetacean species. Stranding often occurs in large groups rather than just one individual.
  • The whales have been reported to occasionally attack humans, mostly snorkelers.
  • The social bonding among these whales is so strong that they are likely to follow each other even to their deaths onto beaches.
  • They are hunted in a few regions of Japan where their meat is used for human consumption.
  • Over 230 beached pilot whales were massacred in consecutive grinds in the Faroe Islands in 1212.


Check out some images of these fascinating underwater creatures.

Pictures of Pilot Whale

Pilot Whale Picture

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