Length: 4.2 – 6.5 m (12-25’)
Weight: 2 – 4 tons
Population size in Canada: 50,000
Population size in World: 440,000 – 1,370,000
Conservation status in Canada: Not at Risk (COSEWIC)
Conservation status in World: Lower risk: least concern (IUCN)
Latin Name: Globicephalus melas
Other Names: Pothead, Blackfish
Suborder: Odontocete (Toothed Whale)
- Up to 25 feet in length
- black whale, W-shaped patch on belly
- robust body with large rounded, bulbous head (melon)
- no beak
- one blowhole
- long, slender flippers up to 1/5 body length
- wide-based rounded dorsal fin, located forward of midpoint
- low, bushy blow
- often spy-hops
- always observed in groups
- group size 10-50 (less commonly 1-100), 100s or 1,000s may gather
The long-finned pilot whale is a medium-sized whale, and is most easily identified by its bulbous melon and black or dark brown body colour. It has a long but stocky body and a very slight beak with an up-curved mouthline that slants towards the eyes. The dorsal fin is set ahead of the midbody, is longer at the base relative to its height, rises at a shallow angle, and is falcate (strongly-curved). The flippers are approximately one-fifth of the body length and tapered.
The pilot whale’s colour pattern can vary from dark gray to black to brown, with a white or light gray anchor-shaped patch on the belly linked by a thin stripe to another light area in the genital region. There is also a white or light gray saddle-patch on the back behind the dorsal fin, and a tapering white or light gray streak behind each eye that travels towards the dorsal fin.
Male long-finned pilot whales are much larger than females. Adult males can measure up to 25 feet and can weigh up to 4 tons. Conversely, adult females measure up to 16 feet and can weigh up to 2 tons.
Female pilot whales can live past 60 years while males only reach 35-45 years. Males become sexually mature at 12 years of age, while females reach sexual maturity earlier, at 6-7 years of age. Both mating and calving usually occur between April and September. Gestation is estimated to be 12 months and their birth interval is one of the longest of all the cetaceans. Lactation lasts for at least 3 years, often longer.
There are two living subspecies of long-finned pilot whales: one in the North Atlantic and one if the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern subspecies have a circumpolar distribution, and can be found from approximately 20°S to 65°S. They can be sighted off the coasts of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand. The North Atlantic subspecies is boreal and subarctic, and can be found from North Carolina all the way to the Azores at its southern peak, and to Newfoundland and the Greenland and Barents Seas at its northern peak.
Long-finned pilot whales feed mainly on squid and mackerel in the North Atlantic. They are known to occasionally eat shrimp, octopus and various other fish species. In contrast, for long-finned pilot whales in the Southern Hemisphere, fish appears to be at least as important as squid in their diet. They can dive for prey to depths up to 1650 feet (although they can dive deeper when necessary), and have 9 to 12 pairs of teeth in the upper and lower jaws to catch and grasp prey.
Long-finned pilot whales are highly social, and usually travel in groups that can vary in numbers averaging from 2 to 135. Within those groups, individual whales often form close associations with 11-12 other individuals that can last for years. These smaller pods are thought to be matrilineal groups (adult females and their offspring). The large groups of pilot whales have a very strong level of social cohesion and mass strandings are not unusual, sometimes involving hundreds of individuals.
At the surface, long-finned pilot whales display a vast array of behaviours, from quietly resting (logging or milling) to actively spyhopping and diving. Mature males have been observed fighting by ramming each other with their melons, sometimes causing serious injury or death.
There are an estimated 10,000 long-finned pilot whales in the western North Atlantic, a few hundred thousand in the central and eastern North Atlantic, and 200,000 in the area south of the Antarctic Convergence. There were an estimated 50,000 off the eastern U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coast in the 1970s, although there are no current estimates. Worldwide, the population is estimated to be somewhere between 440,000 and 1,370,000, based on the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) comprehensive assessment.
Long-finned pilot whales have been hunted historically in Cape Cod, Newfoundland, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Ireland, Iceland and Norway. This was done by driving large groups of pilot whales ashore and killing them. They were also harpooned by American sperm whalers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Currently, however, long-finned pilot whales are only hunted regularly in the Faeroe Islands, where there has been an annual catch of approximately 1500 individuals since the 1990s. Pilot whales are also used by humans as exhibition animals, and are often removed from the wild and placed in zoos and aquariums.
Long-finned pilot whales are also vulnerable to entanglement in longlines, trawls and gillnets. Entanglement causes the death of numerous pilot whales each year. They are also often involved in mass strandings, when hundreds of animals may strand at one time, possibly due to their highly social nature. Causes of strandings are unclear, but may be induced by sonar and other anthropogenic ocean noise, disease, or infection resulting in neurological disorders.
International Whaling Commission. 2007. Pilot whales in Population Table.
http://www.iwcoffice.org/conservation/estimate.htm#table [accessed: January 31, 2007].
Mitchell, E. 1974. Present status of northwest Atlantic fin and other whale stocks in W. E. Schevill (ed), The whale problem: A status report. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pgs. 108-169.
Ottensmeyer, C.A., and Whitehead, H. 2003. Behavioural evidence for social units in long-finned pilot whales. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 81: 1327-1338.
Reeves, R. R., Stewart, B.S., Clapham, P.J., Powell, J.A. 2002. Pilot Whales in: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. Pgs. 440-443.