Long-finned Pilot Whale

  • Scientific name: Globicephala melas
  • Also know as: Blackfish
  • Size: Up to 20ft in length and around 7,500lbs
  • IUCN Status
    • Global: DD (Data Deficient)
    • Europe: DD (Data Deficient)
  • Distribution: Found in cooler, temperate waters around the world.
  • Feeds on: Squid and fish.
  • Description: Usually dark grey to black in colour but occasionally lighter grey. Large size with extremely bulbous forehead. Pectoral fins are long and dorsal fin is swept backwards. Body is fairly thick, eyes are small and mouth is very wide and terminates in a slightly pointed snout.

Despite its name the pilot whale is a member of the dolphin family and is found in the cooler waters in both the northern and southern hemispheres. They are the second largest dolphin species in the world, with the orca (killer whale) being the only dolphin species which attains larger sizes. Male pilot whales can grow up to a maximum length of around 20ft, while females can reach around 16ft, although the vast majority of fully grown pilot whales are slightly smaller than this. Like killer whales they were once thought to be a fish species and were known as blackfish, although this name is rarely used now.

Distribution

Pilot Whale DistributionLong-finned pilot whales are generally found in the cooler, temperate waters of the world (they avoid both the freezing polar regions and tropical areas). There are two separate populations in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres which do not intermix. The population in the Northern Hemisphere is found around the British Isles, in Nordic waters and in parts of the Mediterranean, with its range extending across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of North America.

There is a second species of pilot whale, the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus). This species, however, prefers warmer waters, and is found in large family groups in deeper, offshore waters around the equator. As the map above shows there are areas of the Atlantic where both species of pilot whale overlap and can be found together, although the short-finned pilot whale is not found in British waters.

Life Cycle

Long-finned pilot whales are a species which is generally found far out to sea in the deep waters of the open ocean. Like all species of marine mammals pilot whales are a creature which lives in family groups of up to several hundred individuals, with clear roles for individual whales. It is often one of the older females which acts as the leader, or pilot of the group, behaviour which gives this species its name. Females look after the young for extended periods of time, certainly several years after birth and maybe as long as seven to eight years in some cases. Pilot whales have a highly developed method of communicating when in their family groups, using complex vocalisations. They are a highly intelligent species and rival bottlenose dolphins and killer whales in their problem solving abilities. Pilot whales are active hunters. It is fish and squid which make up the majority of their diet and they will dive to depths of several hundred metres to pursue their prey.

Pilot whales are more likely to beach themselves than other species of marine mammal. The reason for this is unknown but it is thought to be linked to the close family structure which pilot whales display – when one beaches itself others may be driven to do the same. A mass stranding of many long-finned pilot whales took place in Fife, Scotland in 2012.

Hunting and Conservation

Pilot whales were heavily exploited during the 19th and 20th centuries, with Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and America all hunting this species. While many large marine mammals were hunted by harpooning, pilot whales were more often captured by ‘driving’ a method which involves corralling whales or dolphins into a group and then forcing them onto a beach, where they are slaughtered.

Whale Kill

Left: pictures of the dead long-finned pilot whales from the Faroe Islands annual whale hunt taken in 2005. Right: commercial packaging from a packet containing pilot whale in a Faroe Islands supermarket.

Today, very few nations still hunt pilot whales (occasionally they may be caught by countries still involved in whaling such as Norway and the Faroe Islands), and they are sometimes caught as bycatch in the nets of commercial fishing vessels. There are also claims that the powerful sonar used by military vessels may also affect pilot whales, and possibly be to blame for some of the cases of mass strandings. The IUCN classes this species as Data Deficient on a global basis and in the European region, meaning more research is needed to work out the levels of long-finned pilot whale numbers.

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