Pilot Whale

Pilot Whale
Conservation status: Lower risk
Missing image
Illustration of a pilot whale

Scientific classification
Species:G. melas
G. macrorhynchus
Binomial name
Globicephala macrorhynchus
Binomial name
Globicephala melas

A Pilot Whale is one of two species of cetacean in the genus Globicephala. The genus is part of the oceanic dolphin family (Delphinidae) although their behaviour is closer to that of the larger whales. The two species are the Long-finned Pilot Whale and the Short-finned Pilot Whale. The two are not readily distinguished at sea and are typically just known simply as Pilot Whales. They and other large members of the dolphin family are also known as blackfish.

Physical description

Pilot Whales are jet black or a very dark grey colour. The dorsal fin in set forward on the back and sweeps back. The body is elongated but stocky in the tail fin.

The differences in appearance of the two species are quite subtle and where their distributions overlap it is generally not possible to tell the species apart at sea. On land specimens may be distinguished (perhaps unsurprisingly!) by the length of flipper, the number of teeth and the shape of the skull: the Short-finned has a more bulbous head particularly in older males; the Long-finned is squarer, and the forehead is more likely to overhang the mouth. G. macrorhynchus was described, from skeletal materials only, by John Edward Gray in 1846. He presumed from the skeleton that the whale had a large beak ("macrorhynchus" in Latin).

Birth weight is about 60 kg. Adult weight varies from 1,000 to 3,000 kg. They may be between four and seven metres in length. Life span is about 45 years in males and 60 years in females for both species.

Both species live in groups of about 10 to 30 in number. They are quite active and will frequently lobtail, spyhop and approach boats.

Pilot Whales feed predominantly on squid. Tuna and Pilot Whales are frequently found in the same area. This is probably because they share a common diet (squid) rather than that the Pilot Whale feeds on tuna. Pilot Whales are more susceptible than most species to beaching. It is possible that squid spawning close to shore attract Pilot Whales and cause them to beach.

Population and distribution

Pilot Whales are amongst the most common and widely-distributed of the marine mammals in the cetacean order.

The Long-finned species prefers slightly cooler waters than the Short-finned and is divided into two populations. The larger group is found in a circumpolar band in the Southern Ocean running from approximately 20&deg S to 65&deg S. It may be sighted off the coasts of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There are estimated to be in excess of 200,000 individuals in this group. The second population is much smaller and inhabits the North Atlantic Ocean, in a band that runs from South Carolina in the United States across to the Azores and Morocco and its southern edge and from Newfoundland to Greenland, Iceland and northern Norway at is northern. It is also present in the western half of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Short-finned species is more populous. It is found in temperate and tropical waters of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Its population overlaps slightly with the Long-finned Species in the western Atlantic. There are 150,000 individuals in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. There are estimated to be more than 30,000 animals in the western Pacific, off the coast of Japan.

Both species prefer deep water.

Human interaction

See also: Whaling in the Faroe Islands

The long-term survival prospects of both species look good. Indeed in its Red List of Threatened Species the IUCN lists both the Long-finned and Short-finned as "Lower Risk; conservation dependent".

The Long-finned Pilot Whale has traditionally been killed by whalers by the process of "driving" - where many fishermen and boats surround a school of whales and slowly force them to shore, killing them. This practice was common in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, declining only in the 1990s. In the 1980s around 2,500 individuals were killed each year in this manner. Currently only the Faroe Islands operates such a cull - killing around 1,000 animals each year. In the southern Hemisphere there has been much less human interference than in the north - there are some reports of a whaling drive off the Falkland Islands but details are sketchy. It is unlikely to effect the stability of the southern population which seems to be secure.

The Short-finned Pilot Whale has also been hunted for many centuries, particularly by Japanese whalers. In the mid-1980s the annual Japanese kill was about 2,300 animals. This had decreased to about 400 per year by the 1990s. Killing by harpoon is still relatively common in the Lesser Antilles, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Due to poor record-keeping it is not known how many kills are many each year, and what the effect this has on the local population, although the global effect is probably absorbable.

Both species are killed in their hundreds or perhaps thousands in longline and gillnets each year.


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